[This review appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 391-393.]

Book Review 

 

Where Have All the Leaders Gone?

Lee Iacocca, with Catherine Whitney

Scribner, 2007

 

            The question asked by the title of this book is one that deserves serious attention. The implication that leadership has disappeared is something with which many Americans would agree as they look over their national scene in 2008.  Lee Iacocca, who once headed two giant corporations—the Ford Motor Company and later the Chrysler Corporation—and has most recently been seeking a cure for diabetes through the Iacocca Institute at Lehigh University, would seem an ideal person to shed light on the issue. 

            Unfortunately, Iacocca is limited in his discussion of it.  He is vigorous in expressing his distress about the problem in government (especially in the George W. Bush administration) and in corporate life, and describes several features of the plight American society finds itself in, but his analysis suffers from three defects: he has almost nothing to say about causes or solutions, which means his discussion is ultimately superficial; political or ideological partisanship causes him to be far more selective in the examples he cites than would be expected from an objective analysis; and the book drifts away from its central issue, suggesting that it is more likely a compendium of writings on a variety of subjects than an extended analysis of the leadership issue.

            Those who are familiar with the current disfavor in which President George W. Bush is held by much of the American media and public will find a great deal that is now commonplace in Iacocca’s criticisms of Bush: “…inability to listen.”  “…messianic fervor.”  “…inability to talk straight.”  “…lack of common sense” (such as believing that the U.S. would be greeted as liberators in Iraq).  His criticisms of the Bush administration will also be familiar: “…a gang of clueless bozos.”  “…much of our government is run by cronies” (citing the examples of Michael Brown as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency at the time of the Katrina hurricane, of Harriet Meirs as a Supreme Court nominee, and of Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General).

            His observations about American business today also mirror widely publicized criticisms, but they carry extra authority when they come from an executive of Iacocca’s experience.  It should be shocking to us when such a man finds it necessary to say that “we’ve got corporate gangsters stealing us blind,” and asks whether “we’ve corrupted the very notion of capitalism.”  He tells how the top people at Chrysler made themselves rich while betraying their American workers by selling the company (which had been doing well) to Germans.  This and other examples, such as Ken Lay’s unconscionable actions as the Chief Executive Officer at Enron, cause him to suggest a need to “infuse some humane values into our capitalist system.”  He clearly doesn’t buy into a tightly free-market ideological rationale that executive compensation must per se reflect “the supply of and demand for executive talent.”  When many executives receive enormous compensation even as their companies fail, he believes such compensation can be explained by “the good old boys (and girls) on the boards of directors.”  He tells us that “today’s corporate boards are extremely incestuous.  Insiders bring in other insiders… Most boards serve at the pleasure of the CEO.”  Finally, he is critical of what he calls “merger-mania,” which he sees as for the most part enriching top people while not in fact revitalizing the companies that are brought together.

            One would think that all of this would lead Iacocca into deep reflection about what has happened within corporate culture, about what types of people rise to the top and why, about the country’s Masters in Business Administration (MBA) programs, and perhaps more broadly about what has happened to such virtues as honor, desire to serve, and honesty in American society in general.  But he misses the point of all of that, finding it sufficient to tell the reader of his “Nine Cs of Leadership”—such attributes as curiosity, courage, creativity, and the like.  (Here, we see part of the problem itself; executives in recent years have oddly made a fetish of the alliterative gizmos put together by lecturers in management seminars.  The gimmickry has an embarrassingly low intellectual content.)

            The partisanship that limits his examples is apparent between the lines when, say, he says the George W. Bush administration “spied on us,” but speaks of his admiration for President William Clinton without so much as mentioning “Filegate” (the White House collection of files on a number of Republican politicians).  He says the administration lied the country into Iraq, but has nothing to say about the countless other distortions of truth that make a fairyland out of America’s national mentality.  (What are we thinking of here?  Such things as the country’s annually celebrating Martin Luther King Day as one of its principal holidays, while only the most marginalized publications dare mention King’s having plagiarized his doctoral dissertation and his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech.)  He says with regard to Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy that “race isn’t an issue,” ignoring the overwhelming bloc voting for Obama by blacks in the Democratic primaries.  Such selectivity doesn’t come out of nowhere; rather, it is best explained by a partisan mindset.

            When the book drifts off-subject into a number of other areas (such as advice to retirees about how best to handle retirement), that would perhaps be a good thing were it not for the naivete that mars some discussions and the incompleteness that leaves others hanging.  It is clear that he has some American nationalist concerns, such as we saw in his consciousness of the impact of the Chrysler sale on American workers and see in his call for a “Critical Industries Commission” to look after the survival of key industries.  But he doesn’t really come to grips with the conceptual issues involved.  He sees no inconsistency in supporting “free trade” at the same time he calls for “fair trade.”   It seems sufficient to him to “level the playing field,” even though that’s a highly ambiguous concept.  It is worth noting that by leaving such things only half-discussed, Iacocca manages to “play it safe,” remaining well within the confines of conventional opinion.

            Before we conclude, something more is worthy of mention.  Since the 1960s, one of the more pressing issues in the United States has had to do with the level of culture.  The gentility of earlier times has come to be mocked as empty and dispiriting; and in its place has come a not-so-gradual depletion of manners, of dress, of musical and artistic taste, and of morals.  One wonders whether Iacocca has thought about that at all when he (with the collaboration of his co-author and publisher) has so deliberately spiced his discussion with all sorts of scatological vulgarities that we choose not to enumerate here.  There has been a conscious choice to peg the book to the lowest common denominator.  We are left to ask why.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Dwight D. Murphey