A quarter-century ago, another successful CEO with Detroit connections was being talked about as presidential material because of his skill in managing corporate turnarounds.
His name was Lee Iacocca. And while the Iacocca-for-president boomlet was short-lived, his careers both as businessman and would-be politician contain some lessons for today's leaders.
Having just turned 88, Iacocca is living quietly in retirement, though he emerged last week to endorse Mitt Romney for president, saying "the future of our country is at stake." Few remember the "Iacoccamania" that swept the country in the 1980s. Having saved Chrysler from bankruptcy, starred in its memorable TV commercials, and written a hugely successful autobiography, Iacocca was on the cusp of a presidential bid. In 1985, a poll of potential presidential candidates showed that he trailed Vice President George H.W. Bush by only three percentage points, according to the Encyclopedia of World Biography.
While his political affiliation was a little difficult to pin down (he supported both Democratic and Republican candidates), nobody had any trouble figuring out where Iacocca stood on the issues. His favorite target was the Japanese. He loudly complained about trade restrictions and currency manipulation, and unleashed this characteristic broadside at the Detroit Economic Club: "If they [the Japanese] don't like our cars, then you'd think they could take some American parts and help shave the auto trade deficit. It's funny, isn't it? Those parts are good enough for Mercedes and BMW, but not good enough for Isuzu and Daihatsu?"
Behind the bluster, Iacocca had an uncanny knack for understanding what the American car buyer wants to drive. As an executive at both Ford and Chrysler, he created several new product segments and launched a remarkable number of hit vehicles (along with a couple of misses).