By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. A little over a month ago I wrote a column entitled “The Penalty of (bad) Leadership,” in which I revisited perhaps the greatest piece of ad copy of all time, written by Theodore F. MacManus back in 1915. The print ad only ran once and it never mentioned Cadillac or its competitors, but it brilliantly expressed what it means to be a leader and the heavy burden that comes with leadership.
I then went on to portray GM Chairman and CEO Dan Akerson as someone who is utterly devoid of leadership skills, saying that “applying the term ‘leader’ to Akerson is an insult to those who have come before him in this business and who have excelled in the role and others who are leading in their respective professions now. Devoid of even a shred of relevant experience, Akerson careens around making knee-jerk and just flat-out bad decisions with a hubris that’s simply awe-inspiring in its desultory maliciousness, in effect employing leadership of the worst kind: By gunpoint.”
Why am I bringing this up again? Well, it seems that Mr. Akerson was selected by the Mendoza School of Business at the University of Notre Dame to deliver its commencement address last week. Now, either the ND School of Business ran out of ideas, or it's more likely they figured that GM would be a good candidate for a corporate donation or three, it's because the lovable “Captain Queeg” dispensing leadership advice would be akin to me debating the pros and cons of Traditional English Cottage Gardens vs. Victorian-themed Gardens. As in, huh?
But that didn’t deter Akerson, oh no, because in his remarks he mentioned “authentic” leadership and how it’s the greatest need in the world where they will work and live. Ahem, really, Dan?
I love that word authentic. It’s a good word, a heroic word, even. And we’re seeing it being used more and more for delineating not only what’s real, but what’s true blue and good. The pursuit of authenticity is something worthwhile in this graceless age we live in. And it’s applicable for everything from a creative idea to the way a person – or a company – carries oneself.
I’ll come back to this in a moment.
Akerson said “Every institution that we rely on, whether it is business or government or academia, demands effective leadership to deal with complex issues, now more than ever.”
Wow, that’s deep. And so utterly expected. Thank you, Captain Obvious.
He then went on to say that from a business perspective, a good leader:
1. Defines reality by setting priorities
2. Allocates capital and scarce resources to meet those priorities
3. Is willing to serve
4. Leads by example
Oh, I get it - none of this advice must apply to him. He must be talking about the other guys. But I have to thank Akerson, because his predictably ham-fisted remarks got me thinking about the leaders running the two domestic automakers - Ford and General Motors - and the Italian-owned Chrysler. And how they would fare on an “Authenticity Meter” if there were one.
Well, there is now. Welcome to the inaugural AE Authenticity in Management Meter, where you can gauge your favorite CEO on any number of fronts, such as management style, vision, focus, leadership, fundamental understanding of the Big Picture, what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, and the most important quality, are they, in fact, authentic?
In other words, are they true blue in thought, word and deed? Are they in this because they want to do The Right Thing for the company or is there another, less noble agenda?
Akerson we know. Private Equity refugee. Chief Hand Raiser (that’s how he was selected to be CEO of one of the largest industrial concerns on earth, in case you’ve forgotten). Navy man (sorry, other Navy men and women, we know Akerson is an aberration). Loathes the media. Loathes everything about the car business, in fact. Can’t wait to get out from under the “Government Motors” moniker so he can cash out of the company a little less than one year from now. Big believer in management by intimidation and the putdown, with belittling people his stock in trade.
Sad to say that because of those aforementioned reasons and his other myriad transgressions, Mr. Akerson doesn’t even register on the AE Authenticity in Management Meter. “Accidental Tourist” CEOs and others doing “drive-bys” until they can get paid usually don’t.
What about Sergio Marchionne (aka “The Great Sergio” or “The Exalted One”), the leader of the Fiat-Chrysler conglomerate? No, nothing “accidental” about Ol’ Sergio in the least. He’s exceedingly smart, he’s focused and he’s a multitasker of prodigious ability. But his management style errs to one of being the quintessential micromanager from hell, unfortunately, as he would much rather have 30-odd direct reports than miss the espresso usage log from the tenth floor.
And those direct reports suffer through all of Sergio’s proclivities, enduring the long tedious days and endless late nights until Sergio gets the answers he needs, just so he can drill down even further. Stifling burnout is an occupational hazard if you want to attach yourself to Sergio’s star, there’s just no getting around it.
Marchionne may be the greatest auto industry opportunist of all time and he’s a savvy dealmaker, but his leadership skills are questionable, at best. Because you see for Marchionne it’s all about the deal. Oh, he espouses working for the greater good of the company and for his “team” and giving back locally, but it’s just so much blah-blah to him, because the reality is that it’s about Sergio’s agenda through and through.
And his vision only extends as far as his belief that there will be but a handful of auto conglomerates by 2020, and he thinks he will helm one of them, whether it’s Fiat-Chrysler, or Fiat, or Fiatsler, whatever the case may be. He may be right about the handful of auto conglomerates part, but the idea that Fiatsler might in fact be the bug instead of the windshield hasn’t even occurred to him. It’s anathema, in fact. Even though the odds of that are extremely high.
As for “authenticity” there is a large component of authenticity to Sergio, but it is skewed. Though others have elected him to Sainthood, far from dispelling his acolytes’ ardor or quashing it, Marchionne revels in it. He’d much rather engage in that than acknowledge straight up that after all of the painstakingly crafted image wrangling and the calculated obfuscation of the facts, his agenda remains his and his alone.
In other words he is authentic to himself at least, so there’s that.
So Marchionne’s rating on the AE Authenticity in Management Meter? If it was based on brainpower alone Sergio would score a “ten” but there have been thousands upon thousands of CEOs with prodigious mental acuity who couldn’t set their egos or personal agendas aside long enough to qualify as being authentic and in it for the greater good. So, The Great Sergio garners a 6.0 on the AE Authenticity in Management Meter. (Although if there were an AE Disingenuous in Management Meter, he’d peg it.)
So that leaves Alan Mulally, the CEO of the Ford Motor Company. We all know the story by now, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past seven years, that is, but I’ll sum it up for you if you’re unaware.
Bill Ford Jr., frustrated with the warring fiefdoms that had come to define Ford and worried sick that the company that bears his name couldn’t survive another serious economic downturn, turned to the Boeing executive/engineer for help.
A brave move on Ford’s part to be sure, because in one fell swoop he was admitting that 1. He couldn’t wrestle with the legendary Ford bureaucracy for one more minute, and 2. That he needed to go outside the company to right the ship.
Thus entered Mr. Mulally to the lexicon of Ford and auto industry history.
Unwavering, unflappable and laser-focused on his goal to relaunch Ford on a trajectory to become a smart, savvy and competitive automaker, Alan Mulally’s “One Ford” Plan simply rejuvenated the entire company.
But it is the way he has done it that will become the subject of management case studies at top business schools for years to come.
Mulally didn’t rely on threats or belligerence or a direct report regimen designed to make grown men and women cry. Instead, he based his entire reinvention of the Ford Motor Company on the notion of participatory accountability. His brilliant, “One Ford” Plan galvanized the people of Ford to want to do things better, to improve, to push, to exceed and to just go for it.
In the course of doing so the people of Ford discovered that mediocrity was no longer bliss, it was simply unacceptable.
And Mulally did it with a level of class and fairness and with a remarkably likable demeanor that hasn’t changed one iota since he set foot in the door.
It’s easy to see why that Alan Mulally has become the quintessential definition of authenticity in management for this generation of business leaders and for generations of leaders to come.
And it goes without saying that he scores a perfect “ten” on the AE Authenticity in Management Meter.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.