drive me crazy

Bob Lutz was a product development executive at BMW, Ford, Chrysler and GM over a 47-year career in the auto industry. His book Car Guys vs Bean Counters focuses on his second stint at GM, from 2001-2010.

In an excerpt in the WSJ, Lutz phrases a classic question of executive management, about the tension between leading by example or by autocratic demand:

I had to ask myself, and still do today, if it is the proper role … to get down in the trenches for hours on end, teaching the love of perfection in the smallest details when perhaps a more impatient autocrat would simply have ordered—nay, demanded—that it happen ….

This question has been asked and debated across many industries over many years. In information technology, we’ve seen different answers at HP, Intel, Microsoft, Google, Apple and Facebook. Often within the same company, the story swings between democratic (“emergent” is the trendier term) and autocratic over time, but you could roughly say that HP and Google have been known for emergent corporate cultures, and Intel, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook have been thought of as more autocratic. The public imagination tends to favor stories based on a single personality as leader, so it is likely that every tale of an “autocratic” workplace radically overstates the effect that any one person can have on a large organization.

But still, leaders matter even in the most emergent management styles, and Lutz’s question is a deep one. The tension exists because when a leader is right, autocratic demand will always lead to the best outcome in the shortest possible time – but no one is always right, and the flip side is that autocratic demand leads to the most disastrous failures very quickly when the leader is wrong. Emergent management is an attempt to institutionalize greatness over a long period of time, a period exceeding the career length of any single leader. Lutz asks the right questions again:

But does the autocrat, no matter how gifted, create sustainable success? Or does his style drive away other capable leaders who would form a leadership team after the great man’s departure? . . .

The fact is, though, that my effort to instill into the organization a drive for perfection and customer delight in all things was successful. And still I wonder—was I right? Did I change the core of the product development culture by teaching, or did I rely too much on my own will and my considerable influence to get what I wanted?

Strikingly, Lutz is haunted by the failure of his lessons to stick at Chrysler. He had left that company secure in the knowledge that his standards and principles were permanently embedded in the corporate culture. But it didn’t work – new leadership quickly shifted the company into a bean-counting mentality, and the passion he’d invested there evaporated as easily as spilled alcohol. He thinks there will be a different outcome at GM, but it’s not clear why there’s any reason to believe this.

I find some divisions in Lutz’s dichotomy questionable: an autocratic leader can certainly get down in the trenches, and an emergent leader can certainly demand great results. I agree that sustainable success is the ultimate arbiter of greatness – but if the company doesn’t succeed through crisis points, which sometimes require an autocratic hand, then it will not have the chance to measure a track record over generations of leadership. So I would say that a company – and its leaders – have to be able to master both styles, and most crucially, know when and how to switch from one to the other.

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