When is a good time to talk about it?

Noise, Vibration & Harshness

I had an epiphany the other day while reading about NSA snooping and the dangers of the military industrial complex. You know, the one popularized by Dwight David Eisenhower, five-star general and Supreme Allied Commander in Europe in World War II. “Military industrial complex” appears in an oft-quoted cautionary passage of his farewell address to the American people, delivered in January 1961 after he’d served two terms as President. This is the thing, however: Ike, elected in 1952, waited until his last minute in office to sound the alarm. So the question is, had he just figured out that military contractors, the armed forces, and various government bureaucracies possessed the will and the way to pervert the course of the nation in their own favor? Or did he think better of his chances for survival, personal and political, if he kept his trap shut till he was on his way out the door? I’m voting for the latter.

There’s a lot of common sense behind such a conclusion. It’s the same thinking that underpins all no-holds-barred executive tell-all books, including many from the automotive realm. They’re typically released post-retirement, because people can rarely say what they really think so long as they are still in the game.

One such tome — written by one of this magazine’s all-time favorites, Bob Lutz — has just arrived. The to-the-prep-school-born Swiss American, a former Marine pilot who did time at GM, BMW, Ford, Chrysler, and Exide before rejoining GM, leaving, and then returning to consult, has written three books. His first effort, a 1998 image-burnisher called Guts, celebrated an earlier Chrysler turnaround. It went long on passages about the power of car guys to make it happen. This, not surprisingly, is a central theme of his second book, Car Guys vs. Bean Counters, written after he left GM for the second time and published weeks before he returned in 2011.

This new book — with the curiosity-piquing title Icons and Idiots — was going to be different. It names names and assigns blame. It purports to get angry. Yet it stops short of calling anyone an idiot by name. Lutz has been accused of being arrogant and outspoken, because he often is. But here, he is at his evenhanded best, finding the good with the bad in his subjects. I never thought I’d say it, but it makes for a better, breezier, cheerier read — maybe not as fun as something more one-sided, venomous, or bilious might have been but a pleasant excursion anyway.

A collection of case studies, Lutz’s book chronicles most of the famous executives he has served under as well as the headmaster at his secondary school and his Marine drill sergeant, a couple of stern mofos whom Lutz credits in his initial development.

Then there are his corporate subjects, like Ralph Mason, chairman of Opel (1966–1970). Described as a hopeless drunk, he’s a nasty Southerner who’d been shipped off with his pickled wife to Germany by GM brass. Yet, while recounting his boss’s incessantly blotto antics in Frankfurt, Lutz also praises a man with “a core of toughness and courage.” Recalling one of his next stints, Lutz jousts with BMW chairman Eberhard von Kuenheim to save the famous logo from redesign, “one of the worst ideas ever.” Yet he finds “the wily aristocrat” forever besting him. He lays out the embarrassing details of Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca’s half-billion-dollar blunder, Chrysler’s TC by Maserati, in sordid detail yet calls Lido, a man he admires but wanted to retire, “vulnerable and insecure.” Similarly, Lutz “hated working for” Red Poling, eventual CEO of Ford (1990–1993) but “considered him a friend and supporter.” No contradiction there. “I hated him. I loved him,” says Lutz.

Why the evenhandedness? Perhaps Maximum Bob is merely being reasonable, which could surprise anyone familiar with his views on global warming, which are quite unreasonable and mercifully alluded to here only briefly. But in this volume he expresses the plausible observation that successful CEOs aren’t like everybody else, that they typically blend wonderful and less than wonderful qualities, and that it is this combination that makes them work.

So Lutz may have mellowed with old age (he’s eighty-one). Then again, maybe he’s waiting to jump back into the game and doesn’t want to burn any bridges.