Off the Cuff

Bob Lutz’s Greatest Fault May Also Be His Greatest Strength

Off the Cuff

Bob Lutz is a bigger-than-life executive, filling the room with his presence and his booming, gravelly voice.

Lutz is one of the most respected leaders in America and best known as the “ultimate car guy” after spending nearly five decades in top management positions at four automakers: Detroit’s Big Three and BMW.

He’s so highly respected that General Motors hired him out of retirement in 2011 to be its “product czar.”

Lutz admits that he may be outspoken to a flaw. His battles with “bean counters” and his passion for products have given him a distinct reputation both inside and outside the boardrooms. “My weak points were always a tendency to speak out of turn or speak too long or be too critical,” Lutz said.

Often his peers would try to talk him out of speaking his mind but, “what kind of sense of responsibility is that on the part of an executive when they will… for reasons of personal safety…let their boss make a serious mistake? I mean, I think that's almost criminal neglect. “

Taking on bosses didn’t always go as planned for Lutz.

“With (former Chrysler chief executive) Lee Iacocca, taking him on in a meeting was exactly the wrong approach because even if he realized that I was right, he was not going to admit it in front of that assembled group of people. The right way with him was to keep quiet and then see him privately afterwards. It took me a long time to figure that one out.”

The 81-year-old Lutz was born in Switzerland, and his father was the vice chairman of Credit Suisse. He served as a Marine aviator in the Korean and pre-Vietnam era, and that military training came in handy when he battled the corporate brass and the media. He came under attack when he said "global warming is a crock" and when he likened attractive cars to beautiful women, saying buyers won't bother discovering a vehicle's personality if the car isn't sexy enough to attract them in the first place. When his critics pounced, his supporters said it was just “Bob being Bob.”

In his newest book, “Icons and Idiots: Straight Talk on Leadership,” Lutz writes “Most successful leaders are mentally and emotionally askew…It’s precisely because they are impatient, stubborn, opinionated, unsatisfied, and domineering that they are successful.”

“Navigating a situation where you have a leader with odd behavior is at times, very difficult and I would say in my career, I didn't always get the balance right,” Lutz told ‘Off the Cuff.”

Finding the right balance as an executive is always a challenge, he said, whether it’s managing a product, managing a team, managing up, or managing a star performer.

“Be careful, nurture that person, make sure the person feels valued, but don't declare him to be a crown prince or her to be a crown princess,” Lutz said.

Seemingly sound advice, but not always followed even by those at the very top.

"I once had this conversation with Henry Ford II when we were out at dinner together and he was lamenting the fate of this executive who had left the company. Henry Ford asked after about the second or third glass of wine, ‘What the heck do you think really happened to so-and-so? I thought he was going be my replacement.’ And I said, ‘Well, Mr. Ford, to be totally honest, I think maybe part of the problem was that you told him that and he thought it was a sure thing and started behaving as if he were the crown prince.’ And Henry Ford says, ‘Yeah, you're probably right. I shouldn't have told him. That probably screwed up his career.’”

Being an executive, Lutz said, is always a work in progress: “You have to work on your weak points.”

“I tend to have strong opinions which I share with enthusiasm...some would say to a fault,” Lutz said. “My personal motto is, ‘Often wrong, but seldom in doubt.’"

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