Lee Iacocca Leadership Style

Lido Anthony Iacocca (known as Lee Iacocca) was a pivotal executive in the American automobile industry. He introduced the infamous Ford Motor Company’s (NYSE:F) Mustang and Pinto before reviving Chrysler from the junkyard in the 1980s.

He has a laundry list of both failures and successes that have people still studying the Lee Iacocca leadership style to this day.

Iacocca became the most famous CEO and car salesman in America when he rescued Chrysler’s business. He’s known for his competitive streak and penchant for cigars and vinyl car roofs. In fact, he set the standard for the brash, no-nonsense executive at the end of the millennium.

Long before Elon Musk drove his Tesla Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA) company to the front of the auto industry, Iacocca was the man to beat. Japanese imports were a threat, and he put Detroit back on the map after gambling big with some risky designs at Ford (F).

Let’s dive into the man, the myth, and the legend of Lee Iacocca.

Who Is Lee Iacocca?

Iacocca was born in 1924 to an immigrant family in Pennsylvania. He graduated in 1946 with a mater’s degree in engineering from Princeton University. This led to his career in the American automotive industry.

Originally hired by Ford as an engineer, he soon showed his aptitude as a savvy salesman. He rose through the ranks of management while his Mustang design landed him on the covers of both Time and Newsweek in 1964.

He regularly appeared on TV shows like Good Morning America and Late Night with David Letterman. In fact, his success as the mascot of his companies inspired other executives like Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas to do the same.

At the end of 1970, Iacocca was appointed Ford’s president by Henry Ford II, the son of the company’s founder. However, they soon started to clash due to different leadership styles, and Ford II eventually paid $1.5 million in company funds to investigate Lee’s professional and private life.

Their relationship soured as Ford wanted his son Edsel to take over the company, and Iacocca’s relationship with the company was severed by 1978. It was a public firing that made waves in the media and industry. Inevitably, this led to him becoming president of the Chrysler Corporation, which he convinced the government to bail out.

By the time he retired in 1992, Iacocca was a national celebrity as much as any car brand under launched under him. In retirement, he continued serving on the board of several companies and remained involved in multiple causes. He was considered as a potential presidential candidate at one time and authored several books.  

Iacocca died in July 2019 at the age of 94 in his Bel Air, California home. Much like every other phase of his life, news of his death was widely reported.

Was Lee Iacocca A Good Leader?

At his prime, Iacocca was as famous as Elon Musk, and he was just as bold. He was a versatile leader who had no fear of taking risks, some of which paid off (the Mustang and the minivan) while others fell flat (the Pinto).

He knew that he wasn’t the man with all the answers, but he worked hard to hire experts and then get out of their way. This encouraged people to try things, even if they failed, which is a key ingredient of successful innovation. And Iacocca constantly told his employees that you need to innovate if you’re not number 1.

Iacocca was a proponent of pivoting from the old to the new and continually saw tough problems as great opportunities. He encouraged open communication with employees and knew the need of rewarding them to motivate them to do a great job. He believed people were the key to his success, and history proved his theories right.

This helped Iacocca keep his cool, even as he steered two companies through turbulent waters. His tenure at Ford was punctuated by a long, vicious battle of minds between himself and the company’s founding family. He took Chrysler over at a time when it was on a road map to crash into a wall, but he kept his cool and turned things around.

By trusting his people and doing the right thing to keep Chrysler moving, Iacocca proved he’s a great leader. He shared his approach when he authored several books on leadership to help the next generation improve their own skills with his experienced fundamentals.

What Is Lee Iacocca Famous For?

Iacocca was well known within the automotive industry during his tenure with Ford. He built a reputation as a strong salesman who knew how to address pain points and build trust. This gained him some media attention, but it wasn’t until he took over Chrysler that he became a household name.

He guided Chrysler through the first government auto industry bailout, and he successfully turned the company around after. This is a lesson we’ll discuss in more detail in the next section, but the effect was a transformation that made him the face of the company he led.

Regular appearances on TV commercials and shows touting a reborn brand made him a public spokesperson. And that grew his fame, which he gladly leaned into. He often played himself as an elder executive on popular TV shows and is portrayed in modern media through Ford vs Ferrari.

As an iconic automotive executive, Iacocca will always be remembered, but it’s his business savvy and sales techniques that truly cemented him in this country’s history. He was a leader of the people and for the people, and he didn’t hesitate to make the hard decisions to save the business.

How Did Lee Iacocca Save Chrysler?

Chrysler was on the brink of collapse in 1980 when it hired Iacocca. He took control of things and used American patriotism to spur renewed interest in the American automotive industry. He understood marketing strategy and coined the tagline, “If you can find a better car, buy it.”

But the key to saving Chrysler was negotiating a bailout. He worked with Congress and the Carter administration to approve federal loan guarantees of up to $1.5 billion.

Although controversial, Iacocca flipped the company inside out to pay the loans back. He slashed salaries for executives (including his own salary, which he set at $1/year to set the stage). He closed factories, laid off nonessential employees, and refinanced debts. Within three years, he paid the 10-year loans off.

It’s this dedication that ultimately earned the respect of his peers and others in the auto industry and beyond.

What Type of Leader Was Lee Iacocca?

Iacocca was a charismatic leader who excelled at hiring and inspiring great people. He built a solid reputation within his company, his industry, and the culture by making himself the spokesperson for his companies.

You can only lead from the front, and that’s what he made sure to do in each of the companies he led. He encouraged unions and even added a union leader to corporate leadership, a rare move even today.

Lee Iacocca Charismatic Leadership

Lee Iacocca created some of the most iconic cars that still exist today, including the Ford Mustang and Chrysler minivan.

He did so by hiring good people and getting out of their way, so they can create magic. This also freed up some of his time to act as the face of the company.

Because of his vibrant personality and sales ability, Iacocca became one of the most iconic leaders in American business history.

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