Opinion

The Great Debate

Car czars

This piece originally appeared in Reuters Magazine.

Henry Ford had to fight to build the Model T, even within the company that bore his name. The Russian immigrant engineer who saved the Chevy Corvette bucked the General Motors brass to do it. Lee Iacocca and Hal Sperlich built the minivan at Chrysler only after the vehicle—and they—had been rejected at Ford.

Those three cars were not just huge commercial successes—each also placed its stamp on American life, much as the iPad has today. Two were utterly practical while the third was ostentatiously stylish, but what they all had in common is this: The people who created them overcame formidable obstacles to put them on the road. Unblinking determination is a common theme in the biggest American business success stories, such as Ray Kroc’s damn the-odds effort to build McDonalds and Steve Jobs’ audacity in reshaping Apple. Luck and timing are involved too, but they aren’t enough. The special sauce (apologies to Kroc) is a strain of determination that blends self-belief with belief in the commercial potential of a product.

Determination and self-belief sometimes goes awry in the auto industry, as in other arenas. Exhibit A is the Chevrolet Corvair, introduced in 1960 with an innovative air-cooled, rear-mounted engine that produced 29 miles a gallon, more than double most cars of its day. Despite the weight concentrated in the car’s rear, Ed Cole, the Corvair’s creator, stoutly rejected putting a weight-stabilizing bar under the car’s front end. The result was a plethora of accidents and a muckraking 1965 book by an unknown lawyer named Ralph Nader: Unsafe at Any Speed. The Corvair scandal prompted a boom in product-liability litigation that continues to this day.

Then there’s John Z. DeLorean, whose 1970s effort to build an “ethical sports car” in Belfast collapsed amid financial overreach. Most guys would have tried to rescue their company with an IPO or junk bonds, but DeLorean tried selling cocaine. Though he was acquitted at trial when a jury judged that the FBI entrapped him, his career and his company were finished.

But both Cole and DeLorean enjoyed enormous success before their signature failures. Cole created a small-block V8 engine that powered the legendary ’57 Chevies and was a key figure in the success of the Corvette. DeLorean created the Pontiac GTO, which launched the muscle-car craze of the 1960s and still invokes strong emotions among onetime boy racers. A sign on a restored GTO displayed in suburban Chicago a few years ago declared: “This car was built in honor of Almighty God, in memory of my dad, and of my fellow hometown veterans who did not have the chance to live these memories.”

Leadership by the book

This piece originally appeared in Reuters Magazine

Every year publishers release dozens, if not hundreds, of books about leadership. These books range from how-to books written by tenured professors of management theory at Harvard Business School to inspirational tracts generated by motivational speakers and longtime high school football coaches. While it’s evident that an eager audience exists for leadership books, how useful could they actually be? After all, if it were possible to become an effective leader simply by reading a stack of books, then presumably there would be a lot more good leaders in the world.

Assuming it’s possible to learn leadership lessons from a book, it seems even more likely that one could glean authoritative wisdom from reading biographies of great leaders, people who were not only influential but who actually succeeded in changing the world. Biographies, moreover, have the advantage of being real stories and, unlike leadership self-help books, are often composed by excellent writers. They appeal to a much broader class of reader, including the kind of people who might once have read epic poems or romances, tales of gods and heroes and their mysterious ways. If it’s true that biographies of great leaders constitute a higher form of leadership literature, several questions remain: How do the biographers deal with the subject? Do they take lessons from leadership books or leadership theory? And do they agree—as many of the how-to books maintain—that leadership lessons can be distilled and presented independently of the leaders themselves, and transferred from one field of accomplishment to another? Seeking instruction, I turned to three distinguished biographers for guidance. Here are a few lessons I learned about leadership lessons.

Biography isn’t self-help. Almost no professional biographers set out to portray their subjects in a didactic manner; they are attracted to the complexity of depicting a leader in his or her natural habitat. “I don’t directly try to turn my biographies into how-to books,” insists Walter Isaacson, author of several biographies, including last year’s blockbuster Steve Jobs. On a leadership scale from 1 to 10, Isaacson says Jobs should be given a 10 as perhaps the most inspiring technology leader of all time, adding, “But I’d take away two points for being so abrasive.” And that’s the point: biographical subjects “are real people who have strengths and flaws,” says Isaacson. “Those of us who write biographies of leaders understand that it’s a much richer topic than can be synopsized into a few bullet points.”

Running al Qaeda

This piece originally appeared in Reuters Magazine.

We now have the first public release of goodies from Osama bin Laden’s redoubt at Abbottabad: 17 letters to and from bin Laden and his crew that spell out vision, plans and tactics for the global jihad. The letters span a decade and outline the dimensions of a would-be caliphate – a truly global theater of war conceived, plotted and executed by bin Laden. They also reveal bin Laden to be a highly accomplished orchestrator of a global network struggling with the challenges of collaboration. Three issues consume him, and they happen to be the classic political tasks in the management of collaboration.

First, and most important: keeping everyone on track. For bin Laden, the primary management task was clearly holding everyone to a solitary vision, staying true to values (Islamic law, as he read it), and aligning deeds with words. Across his network bin Laden had little command or control over who operates in the name of Allah or even al Qaeda. As a result, nothing bugged him more than dummies among al Qaeda’s formal franchisees, loose affiliates or allies getting distracted from killing Americans; or butchering innocent Muslims; or blowing chances for alliances he sorely wanted to create. Bin Laden’s advisers were astounded, for example, when al Qaeda in Iraq attacked Catholics in an attempt to pressure Coptic Christians into releasing prisoners. It’s as if, one wrote, someone took Sunnis hostage to pressure Shias – “Does this satisfy any sane person?” The sheer horror of the geopolitical and historical error left bin Laden’s deputies shaking their heads.

Second: managing franchise relations. Getting second-rung leadership right is important for any enterprise, and for al Qaeda that meant assuring the brand and building network capacity for terror. Bin Laden was careful about deciding who would be anointed with two powerful gifts – his blessing of leadership, and formal affiliation of groups to al Qaeda central (a term he heard used by the media and, amazingly, appropriated). Bin Laden was no pushover. In fact, the letters show that he was hands-on and prickly about all such organization matters, going so far as to require memoranda of understanding with affiliates. As for appointments, bin Laden was a stickler for a good résumé that detailed education, battlefield experience, and religious training.

The Made-in-China CEO

This piece originally appeared in Reuters Magazine.

Zhang Yue fondly caresses the blueprints as he slowly flips through them, occasionally pausing to stare at a drawing as he explains his new project. The plan seems impossibly ambitious: build a 220-story building, the tallest in the world, in just four months by using the rapid-construction techniques his company has developed. Zhang, a slight but wiry and intense man of 52, says “Sky City” – as he has dubbed it – can fix many of the world’s pollution, congestion, transportation and even disease problems by completely purifying the tower’s air. The 838-meter-tall building (10 meters taller than the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, currently the world’s tallest) will hold schools, a hospital, 17 helipads and some 30,000 people. It will, indeed, be a city in the sky.

His dreams don’t stop there. Pinned up on his office wall are plans for a project even more audacious – an almost preposterously massive building two kilometers high. When asked to estimate the odds of this 636-floor giganto-scraper ever being built, Zhang responds without hesitation, “One hundred percent! Some say that it’s sensationalism to construct such a tall building. That’s not so. Land shortages are already a grave problem. There’s also the very serious transportation issue. We must bring cities together and stretch for the sky in order to save cities and save the Earth. We must eliminate most traffic, traffic that has no value! And we must reduce our dependency on roads and transportation.”

Tenaciously pursuing a lofty vision is a hallmark of Zhang’s success at Broad Group, but also that of many entrepreneurial Chinese chief executives in these days of heady growth in the world’s second-largest economy. The recipe for success for all these CEOs includes: 1) the vision and guts to seize upon a bold, even outlandish idea; 2) a relentless drive to build a company; and 3) an outsized ego to drive the process and overwhelm the skeptics.

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