By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Back in 1915, adman Theodore F. MacManus wrote perhaps the greatest piece of advertising copy of all time. Working on behalf of Cadillac, copywriter MacManus wrote the ad, entitled “The Penalty of Leadership” in response to the fact that new advertising from Packard was attacking Cadillac over the reliability of its new V8 Touring and trying to create doubts in consumers’ minds. Cadillac, the acknowledged industry leader at the time, wouldn’t have it and MacManus penned the response in an extraordinary piece of copy that resonates to this day.
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. MacManus began the ad with the following passage:
“In every field of human endeavour, he that is first must perpetually live in the white light of publicity. Whether the leadership be vested in a man or in a manufactured product, emulation and envy are ever at work. In art, in literature, in music, in industry, the reward and the punishment are always the same. The reward is widespread recognition; the punishment, fierce denial and detraction. When a man’s work becomes a standard for the whole world, it also becomes a target for the shafts of the envious few…”
From that point on, MacManus steps on the gas in a dizzying display of knowledge, forthrightness and command of the English language, the entire time relentlessly hammering his point home. But in the midst of writing an eloquent rebuttal to Cadillac’s would-be competitors, MacManus also managed to define what true leadership means for all time. He closed the ad with the following:
“There is nothing new in this. It is as old as the world and as old as human passions - envy, fear, greed, ambition, and the desire to surpass. And it all avails nothing. If the leader truly leads, he remains - the leader. Master-poet, master-painter, master-workman, each in his turn is assailed, and each holds his laurels through the ages. That which is good or great makes itself known, no matter how loud the clamor of denial. That which deserves to live - lives.”
Why am I revisiting this great piece of advertising copywriting? To remind AE readers of what great advertising can be? Yes, I have to admit that may be true, at least just a little. After all, in this nanosecond attention-span world we live in, with YouTube videos dominating everything to the point that the written word seems to be fading from the landscape like pay phones, it’s nice to immerse oneself in a great piece of writing. For me it’s an elixir for the soul.
But that’s not the real reason I’m taking another look back at MacManus’s masterpiece. Because as much as his heroic piece of copy defines what leadership is, there’s a rip-snorting, out-of-touch, blunderbuss of an executive operating in our midst who is rewriting the book on what leadership isn’t.
It has been a l-o-n-g three-and-one-half years since Dan Akerson was gifted the reins of General Motors and if that weren’t insulting enough - given that GM’s pathetically inept Board of Directors basically handed him the job for raising his hand - now we’re being subjected to one of the most calculated “charm” offenses in the history of PR, with the lovable Akerson, aka “Captain Queeg,” as its focus.
GM’s spin-meisters are busy attempting to portray Akerson as the visionary leader taking the company to the Promised Land in a new publicity push that defies credibility at every turn. And it comes, amazingly enough, with a GM PR-created proviso - carefully fed to the media, of course - that Akerson is painfully media shy and that he’s only doing this for the good of the company and that GM has a real story to tell. That’s total, unmitigated bullshit, in case you're wondering.
GM does have a great story to tell but it has absolutely nothing to do with Dan Akerson. As a matter of fact there is such a disconnect between the people who actually are responsible for GM’s rejuvenated product offerings – the True Believers in Design, Engineering and Product Development – and Akerson and his cronies on the GM Board of Directors that it’s as if we are discussing two completely different companies: The one that actually exists in the real live automobile industry and the one that exists only in the darkened caverns of Akerson and his cronies’ minds.
(This fundamental disconnect is so bad that Akerson’s reign reminds me of a third-world dictator, the kind who operates in a hermetically sealed vacuum totally oblivious and dismissive of the realities of day-to-day life that the rest of the country’s people have to deal with.)
The disingenuous thing about this new image push is that Akerson loathes the media with every fiber of his being and he detests the very idea that there are people out there who actually get paid to ask questions and who are not the least bit interested in doing his bidding.
It’s totally anathema to him, in fact. After all, Akerson comes from the relentlessly vacuous world of Private Equity, a planet filled with people who fancy themselves as benign crusaders for the public good, nothing less than behind-the-scenes advocates for the Big Idea, the do-gooders – as it were - for corporate America, when in fact they’re more akin to corporate parasites that prey on companies either on the way up or on the way down, waiting to pump up their worth or strip them bare and eventually flipping them for the pure profit of it all, one way or the other. Not that there’s anything wrong with turning a profit, but they do this without compunction or consciousness, utterly devoid of any worries or concerns that might guide their ship near the planet of Do the Right Thing.
And seeing as the Private Equity legions like to fancy themselves as quick studies specializing in parachuting in to a given industry, quickly assessing the situation and then making their go/no-go decisions as quickly as possible, the results, as they say, vary. Remember what happened when Cerberus decided they were going to save Chrysler and the U.S. automobile industry? The result was a frickin’ disaster of major proportions, one that ended up almost eradicating the company.
And here comes Dan Akerson with the same mindset, the same sensibilities – or more specifically the lack of any to speak of – and the same quick-draw, “I’m smarter than anyone here” attitude. He is relentless in his cluelessness, which is outrageous to contemplate and depressing to see play out within the confines of the company. There’s no amount of PR that can conceal the sheer, uninspired banality of Akerson’s so-called “leadership” either. It’s no wonder that there are two GMs.
And given his background it’s no wonder that Akerson bristles at the temerity of some reporter questioning him or calling him out for something that he did or didn’t do. In Akerson’s mind these people are mere irritants, just like the people who work for him who have the balls to question his logic – such as it is – when he’s trying to grasp an automotive issue that he has no clue about but nevertheless remains steadfast in his convictions that whatever he thinks must be right.
In his mind Akerson is the Supreme Leader of all he surveys, a gifted shaman forced to bring sense and sensibility to the hinterlands where the moribund domestic auto industry resides, smack dab in the vast wasteland known as the “flyover” states. But to everyone else – especially the disheartened souls forced to work for him - he is the living, breathing, modern-day embodiment of The Emperor’s New Clothes.
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.
As I’ve said previously, this isn’t a territorial knock about “an outsider” running a Detroit-based automaker, because that argument is nonsensical and obsolete. This is about having a gut feel for the enterprise, a sensitivity and understanding of what’s going on – and why – and a healthy respect for the lessons learned along the way.
You’d think that a Naval man - of all people - would have a fundamental respect for those historical lessons, but no, Akerson not only ignores history when it comes to the auto business, he abhors it. How else can you explain his belief that you can cut your way to prosperity? Or that he should be granted the respect akin to someone who actually has registered meaningful achievements in this business, and is outraged when it doesn’t happen?
To make matters worse, Akerson’s propensities to throw around war analogies speak to his skewed take on what leadership actually means. His “Ol’ Blood and Guts” bombast and belligerent demeanor are not charming and instead his countless foot-in-mouth pronouncements peg the “wince” meter at every turn. And it displays tone-deafness on his part that is ill suited for an enterprise on the scale of GM, or any company for that matter.
As I said last August, Akerson’s style has been an absolute disaster from the beginning. He’s alienated his own troops from the get-go and continues to do so on an almost clockwork-type basis. He and his PR handler rail at his critics in a quixotic joust against windmills that either aren’t there, or that stand in defiance of their juvenile posturing as a matter of course. And after all of that, is it any wonder that their latest charm offensive – which is desperately trying to portray Akerson as a decent enough, "aw, shucks" kind of a guy just trying to do a job for his people and the country – is falling flat? I don’t think so.
And here we are nine months later being subjected to yet another cringe-inducing attempt at spinning Akerson’s image to the business world and beyond, and the (albeit painful) High-Octane Truth about the situation is that the more we’re exposed to the cocky tyrant, the worse it gets.
There he was in Washington jawboning our third-rate politicians with his so-called command (cough, hack) of the business and of GM, looking and sounding for all the world like a used carpet salesman who got off the wrong bus. Then there was the drive-by on CNBC. And then he went over to Europe to reaffirm GM’s unending quest to fortify Opel to the tune of another $5.2 billion, assuring anyone who will listen that it was absolutely necessary for GM and that it will all come good in no time.
Along the way he let loose with his usual stream of idiotic comments that portray such a relentless naiveté about this business that it is nothing short of frightening. He heaped derision on GM’s former Hummer division describing the SUVs with this witty epithet - "they were an abomination" - in an excruciatingly long speech/interview at the London School of Economics last week.
(For the record, GM’s Hummer division usurped Jeep’s once-dominant position in the ultimate off-road image business in just four short years. And if it weren’t for the fact that the economy tanked and the Green Intelligentsia – fueled by Washington’s armchair car executives during the bankruptcy proceedings - decided to crucify Hummer as being “Evil” and “Satan’s ride” forcing GM to abandon the brand, we might be looking at an entirely different automotive landscape right now. Today’s Jeep has nothing that answers what the Hummer H4 could have and would have been. When GM jettisoned Hummer it also deleted a profit center with huge long-term potential, especially in Russia. But then again Dan Akerson wouldn’t have a clue about any of that. The sum total of his automotive knowledge rests on the head of a pin.)
But Akerson wasn’t through, oh no. Then he called the Chevrolet Volt "probably the best thing since night baseball" and droned on that if GM dropped the price from $40,000 to $5,000 people would be flocking to it. Huh? That’s like saying if the new Cadillac XTS were dropped in price from $60,000 to $10,000 there would be one in every garage in America. This stuff would be laughable if it weren’t so pathetic. I get that Akerson is hopelessly inept at off-the-cuff conversation, but even when he tries to be “with it” he comes off like a complete buffoon. And this guy, this guy is CEO of one of the world’s biggest corporations?
It’s a flat-out embarrassment.
In another column last August I said that it’s as if Akerson takes his “give me five minutes and I will know more about your business than you do” quick-study executive M.O. to extremes, believing his instant widget assessments to be accurate and unimpeachable. And he has been proved wrong, time and time again. His constant harangues about blowing up the bureaucracies and fiefdoms within GM have validity, but I get the sense that Akerson doesn’t understand what that really means, especially when he lumps in his product development folk when it comes to assigning blame.
And as I reminded everyone last week, Akerson, the scowling, churlish Captain Queeg-like Private Equity refugee who runs roughshod over everyone and everything in his path on his way to becoming The Savior for General Motors – in his own mind, at any rate – is a shortsighted dilettante who thinks he can cost-cut GM to prosperity and get out from under the “Government Motors” tag in one fell swoop.
As anyone in this business knows, it doesn’t work that way. But then again there’s no reason to believe that Akerson would even begin to grasp that concept anyway. When you’re an “Accidental Tourist” of a CEO who was handed GM on a platter, one devoid of even a shred of relevant experience or the foggiest of instincts as to what this business is all about, fundamental concepts are irrelevant. Besides, Akerson thinks the entire automobile business was a joke before he arrived and he has zero respect for his own people, or anyone who came before him in the business for that matter.
It must be excruciatingly mind numbing for the employees of GM to have Dan Akerson as their titular leader, especially for those in the upper echelons who have to endure his juvenile posturing while he insists that he’s come to know more about this business in three-and-one-half years than they’ll ever know.
The Penalty of Leadership is that to lead – really lead - is difficult, all encompassing and relentlessly never-ending. Setting the tone for the rest of an organization is defining and challenging, but it is absolutely essential in order to maintain the kind of focused consistency that leads to success. There are detractors just itching to knock leaders – and leading companies – off of their lofty status, but true leadership makes withstanding those onslaughts much easier.
Having grown up in this business I have seen talented leaders who have demonstrated acumen for the job that was indeed awe-inspiring to see. Sharp, gifted, energetic and magnetic in their personalities to boot, they inspired people to do their best and to strive for excellence at every possible opportunity. And they’ve never been forgotten, having left indelible marks on this business that will remain historically significant and relevant for generations to come.
And I have seen bad leaders too. Conspicuously awkward, relentlessly arrogant and hopeless in their cluelessness, these people were so maliciously inept that they ground their companies and the people who toiled for them into the ground with a jackbooted certainty that left those companies decimated for years afterward.
And Dan Akerson is one of them.
Smugly arrogant for no reason, steadfast in his refusal to listen to anyone, and relentlessly dismissive of this business and the people who bring value to it, this guy is the very definition of bad leadership. An unctuous prick of stupendous proportion, Akerson’s merciless Reign of Terror at the helm of General Motors will be written about in the media and studied in business schools for years to come as the quintessential definition of how it’s not done.
Saying that Dan Akerson is the defining example of the wrong man, at the wrong company, at the wrong time isn’t exactly prophetic, because he’s only the latest in a long line of massive disappointments that have wreaked havoc on this industry. But having to endure yet another withering charm offensive about this relentless hack is beyond tedious.
I feel for the hard-working and talented True Believers at GM as I’m thinking about the day-to-day chaos Akerson is creating by his poor decision making, because these are the calls that will negatively affect GM’s competitiveness in a market that has zero tolerance for good enough.
And the ugly reality of the situation is that the Penalty of (Bad) Leadership is destined to cripple this company for years to come.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.