Commentary on Accountability — and Building and Preserving Trust


Good advice / information sharing from author Steve Watkins in IDB for tomorrow’s leaders of corporate, public and social sector organizations. And for each of us as we build (or tear down) our “trust level” with others.


Are you trustable? It could make the difference between success and failure in a crunch. Lessons: Back in November 1984, auto industry veteran Lee Iacocca published his autobiography — “Iacocca, An Autobiography,” with William Novak (co-author). CEO Iacocca had run Ford (he is the father of the Baby Boomers’ favorite car, the Mustang) and was recruited to turn around the ailing Chrysler (always #3 to Ford and GM). (All proceeds from the book went to the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston — as dedication to his late wife, Mary.)


Lee Iacocca was one of the most trusted men in Corporate America. On his watch, when Chrysler was found to have sold new cars that were slightly used (dealer demos)New York State officials went after the company. CEO Iacocca was appearing on the popular “Donahue Show” and the ever-confrontational host (Donahue) went after Mr. Iacocca. The leader’s response is a classic case of assuming personal accountability.


Yes, we screwed up, he professed (we’re paraphasing here), and we’re sorry and we’ll make it right. He went on to explain what happened, what the company was doing to fix things — and most important, assured everyone that it would not happen again. In effect, TRUST US (and trust me), he told the national TV audience.


He didn’t read a weasel-worded PR statement; nor a carefully-parsed lawyer’s short brief; nor did he mumble and cover his lips or look nervously off to the side for the waiting aides’ hand signals. He went straight to the point, took personal responsibility and pledged to the nation it wouldn’t happen again.


Trust — Lee Iacocca built his career, and his [two auto] companies’ success on it. He was human and showed it. Americans loved it, even talked about running him for president. In his book he states…


“There are times in everyone’s life when something constructive is born out of adversity. There are times when things go so bad that you’ve got to grab your fate by the shoulders and shake it … I’m convinced … that pushed me to take the presidency of Chrysler…” And, “… with determination, with luck, and with help from lots of good people, I was able to rise up out of the ashes…” He was referring to being fired after 30+ years at Ford (where he rose to be CEO) and then rescuing basket-case Chrysler.


Trust had a lot to do with — workers trusted him; auto buyers trusted him; the federal government trusted him and arranged financial support [Treasury Dept] for the turnaround; his co-workers in the C suite trusted him; some of them had come out of retirement to join the dramatic turnaround effort and others left good-paying secure jobs to join Lee in Detroit; the board of directors obviously trusted him when they picked him — a very publicly-fired [Ford] CEO. And he trusted himself. Great lessons for tomorrow’s leaders.


(Read the book again: “Iacocca,” Published 1984 by Bantam.)


Hank Boerner


Editor AC