Lee Iacocca’s Legacy and the Power of CEO Branding

By | July 3, 2019

Lee Iacocca was a legendary leader, and I could argue the original “Iconic CEO.” To be honest, I am not sure why I know so much about him – I was spending my afternoons riding my bike or in roller rink when he was turning around Chrysler. I certainly didn’t know what PR was, or who the CEOs of most companies were. But I knew Lee Iacocca (I guess I should thank my serial entrepreneur father for forcing me to read things about business from a young age).

He pioneered the concept of the “branded CEO” – a subject that has become a particular professional passion for me.  And what he did is as relevant today as it was back in the 80’s when he became a household name. Today, journalists and experts will be talking a lot about the legacy of Iacocca, his book will likely see a resurgence in sales.  But what can those of us in the communications profession learn from the legacy of Lee Iacocca?  He left us a very clear playbook on executive branding:

  • We trust people not companies – In the wake of the OPEC oil crisis and at the height of the famous “greed is good era” the seeds of distrust in companies that are so prominent today were being sown. At the same time, Japanese automakers were enjoying a surge in popularity, and American cars were viewed as inferior for the first time – we didn’t trust those brands. But we did trust Iacocca. He led the turn-around of Chrysler by the sheer force of his personality in a manner that is often imitated but rarely replicated.
  • Leadership is best when demonstrated vs. discussed – Yes, Lee Iacocca wrote a book, but before he talked about his leadership style, he demonstrated it. He reduced his salary to $1 and held it there until Chrysler returned to profitability. He established the precedent for the US government to back US automakers by securing a taxpayer funded $1.5 billion loan, in what may be the original automaker bailout.
  • People always bet on the jockey and may or may not be betting on the horse – Lee Iacocca had his “10 C’s” of leadership including things like courage, common sense and yes, communication. He intuitively understood that having the time to achieve a turnaround would require securing the buy-in of all stakeholders in management and its plan for the company. And that is all about communication.
  • Employees are an asset – if you don’t win with them, you don’t win anywhere – At the same time that Frank Lorenzo was busting unions in America’s other struggling “big industry” (the airlines), Iacocca changed the ‘us vs. them’ paradigm of union relations and ushered in the early wave of thinking around employees as an asset, and the importance of employee buy in to a business strategy.
  •  You need to serve a higher purpose – Long before purpose was a thought, Lee Iacocca understood that he wasn’t just working at turning around an automaker. He was restoring American confidence in American ingenuity, innovation and performance. A full decade ago Iacocca asked the question, “Where have all the leaders gone?” posing questions like “What are we giving back to America?” long before marketers seized purpose as a platform.

 Beyond the CEO branding lessons, Iacocca’s was prescient in many ways. He taught us about the power of context in business strategy and bet big on the growth of the “family lifestyle” and introduced the minivan. His understanding of how geo-political forces would shape our society, as well as our businesses was remarkable. He embraced technology and change at a time when preserving the status quo was well, the status quo. And he trademarked a straight-talk style that is the embodiment of transparency and authenticity that we demand of our leaders today.

Lee Iacocca wrote the book on CEO branding. All we have to do is read it.

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