Achieving Business Excellence with John Spence

Strong Words on Leadership from Lee Iacocca

Let me begin by pointing out that I am no big Lee Iacocca fan. Yes, he is the man who rescued Chrysler Corporation from it’s death throes, but he has had a few stumbles along the way as well. In much the same way I have a ton of respect of Jack Welch, but also understand he has not quite figured out how to walk on water yet.  With all of that said, Mr. Iacocca has written a new book in which he has some pretty strong stuff to say about leadership. Since this is an area that I focus on and he is a rather influential leadership thinker in America, I thought it might be fitting to take a look at what Lee has to say about leadership.

Lee Iacocca says:

“Am I the only guy in this country who’s fed up with what’s happening? Where
the hell is our outrage? We should be screaming bloody murder.

We’ve got a gang of clueless bozos steering our ship of state right over a
cliff, we’ve got corporate gangsters stealing us blind, and we can’t even
clean up after a hurricane much less build a hybrid car. But instead of
getting mad, everyone sits around and nods their heads when the politicians
say, “Stay the course”

Stay the course? You’ve got to be kidding. This is America , not the damned
“Titanic”. I’ll give you a sound bite: “Throw all the bums out!”

You might think I’m getting senile, that I’ve gone off my rocker, and maybe
I have. But someone has to speak up. I hardly recognize this country

The most famous business leaders are not the innovators but the guys in
handcuffs. While we’re fiddling in Iraq , the Middle East is burning and
nobody seems to know what to do. And the press is waving ‘pom-poms’ instead
of asking hard questions. That’s not the promise of the ” America ” my
parents and yours traveled across the ocean for. I’ve had enough. How about

I’ll go a step further. You can’t call yourself a patriot if you’re not
outraged. This is a fight I’m ready and willing to have. The Biggest “C” is

Leaders are made, not born. Leadership is forged in times of crisis. It’s
easy to sit there with your feet up on the desk and talk theory. Or send
someone else’s kids off to war when you’ve never seen a battlefield
yourself. It’s another thing to lead when your world comes tumbling down.

On September 11, 2001, we needed a strong leader more than any other time in
our history. We needed a steady hand to guide us out of the ashes.

A Hell of a Mess

So here’s where we stand. We’re immersed in a bloody war with no plan for
winning and no plan for leaving. We’re running the biggest deficit in the
history of the country. We’re losing the manufacturing edge to Asia , while
our once-great companies are getting slaughtered by health care costs. Gas
prices are skyrocketing, and nobody in power has a coherent energy policy.
Our schools are in trouble. Our borders are like sieves.  The middle class
is being squeezed every which way. These are times that cry out for

But when you look around, you’ve got to ask: “Where have all the leaders
gone?” Where are the curious, creative communicators? Where are the people
of character, courage, conviction, omnipotence, and common sense? I may be a
sucker for alliteration, but I think you get the point.

Name me a leader who has a better idea for homeland security than making us
take off our shoes in airports and throw away our shampoo?    We’ve spent
billions of dollars building a huge new bureaucracy, and all we know how to
do is react to things that have already happened.

Name me one leader who emerged from the crisis of Hurricane Katrina.
Congress has yet to spend a single day evaluating the response to the
hurricane, or demanding accountability for the decisions that were made in
the crucial hours after the storm.    Everyone’s hunkering down, fingers
crossed, hoping it doesn’t happen again. Now, that’s just crazy. Storms
happen. Deal with it. Make a plan.

Figure out what you’re going to do the next time.

Name me an industry leader who is thinking creatively about how we can
restore our competitive edge in manufacturing. Who would have believed that
there could ever be a time when “The Big Three” referred to Japanese car
companies? How did this happen, and more important, what are we going to do
about it?

Name me a government leader who can articulate a plan for paying down the
debt, or solving the energy crisis, or managing the health care problem. The
silence is deafening. But these are the crises that are eating away at our
country and milking the middle class dry.

I have news for the gang in Congress. We didn’t elect you to sit on your
asses and do nothing and remain silent while our democracy is being hijacked
and our greatness is being replaced with mediocrity. What is everybody so
afraid of? That some bonehead on Fox News will call them a name? Give me a
break. Why don’t you guys show some spine for a change?

Had Enough?

Hey, I’m not trying to be the voice of gloom and doom here. I’m trying to
light a fire. I’m speaking out because I have hope, I believe in America .

In my lifetime I’ve had the privilege of living through some of America ‘s
greatest moments. I’ve also experienced some of our worst crises: the “Great
Depression”, “World War II”, the “Korean War”, the “Kennedy Assassination”,
the “Vietnam War”, the 1970s oil crisis, and the struggles of recent years
culminating with 9/11. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s this: “You don’t get
anywhere by standing on the sidelines waiting for somebody else to take
action. Whether it’s building a better car or building a better future for
our children, we all have a role to play. That’s the challenge I’m raising
in this book. It’s a call to “Action” for people who, like me, believe in
America . It’s no t too late, but it’s getting pretty close. So let’s shake
off the crap and go to work. Let’s tell ’em all we’ve had “enough.”

Excerpted from “Where Have All the Leaders Gone?”.

Copyright (c) 2007 by Lee Iacocca. All rights reserved.

I look forward to your comments…


  1. I hate to admit it, (because I think the guy is historical for being stuck on himself) but I think he is on the money with some points.

    If we would put half as much energy into freeing ourselves from foreign oil (in example, electric cars, new forms of energy, etc.) as we do complaining about gas prices then we would be living in a totally different world right now.

  2. Russ Donda says:

    I’d like to know: What exactly does he suggest “fed up” people do?

  3. John Green says:

    This past week I watched the film “Man of the Year” starring Robin Williams and Christopher Walken. While the film is a satirical comedy pointed at the current political process, many of the messages are consistent with the statements expressed in this blog. If you have not seen this movie, it is defintely worth the rental fee.

  4. One of the key hurdles is people’s insistence on perfect solutions. Any new idea or direction gets attacked based on some particular negative aspect, even though the net effect would be positive. We see that with tax reform, immigration reform, etc. This is especially true when the change is in any way merit based — rewarding behavior we want and punishing behavior we don’t. In political decisions we (as a country) consistently try to protect unproductive behaviors and disincentivize productive behaviors. No one would run a business that way (for very long). No one expects a professional sports team to cut strong players and play weak players in the name of fairness. People understand the need to nurture excellence, but they refuse to do it in any government decisions. And the most common reason seems to be that doing so would have some adverse effect on someone. People need to toughen up and realize that most things adversely effect someone — the only choice is whether you reward merit or you reward lack of merit. And no matter what, you always get more of what you reward.