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The Big Three and Symbolic Chernobyls - will they never Learn?

Today’s headlines in most major newspapers have detailed the sad story of the CEO’s of the Big Three American automakers slinking off back to their offices—well, actually traveling back to their offices in private jets—after being turned down in a massive bailout request that would allow them to continue to operate, business as usual, courtesy of the American taxpayer.  I am not a fan of this idea at all (for my views on this, see this post at Columbia Business School’s web site – Public Offering).  Indeed, it was gratifying to note that Jack Welch isn’t a fan of this either (see his column in Business Week.  But this post isn’t about that issue.  It’s about the jets.  It seems that the leaders of these companies really need to get out of those out of date buildings and get some external perspective.

One of the points I always emphasize in leadership seminars is that symbolism is one of the most powerful allies – or enemies – you can have as a leader.  The old illustration of this was the contrasting behavior of Lee Iacocca then CEO of Chrysler, and Roger Smith, then of GM.  Iacocca, in trying to reach agreement with the unions, famously said that he would work for $1 a year until things turned around.  The union leaders felt this showed important solidarity with the troops and with their help and some government assistance, Chrysler was able to recover (for a while at least).  Smith, on the other hand, saw what Iacocca had done and said to his folks, “guys, I feel your pain – so much that I’m going to cut my salary by 25%.”  The amount he was cutting was more than a typical auto worker saw in a lifetime.  Symbolic blowout.

My colleague, Don Hambrick, always reminds us that a symbol is an artifact that has meaning beyond its inherent substance.  And that executives simply cannot escape from ‘symbolic fallout’ – the meaning that others attach to their actions, whatever their intentions were.  Which brings me back to the auto-makers.  For goodness sake, isn’t anybody in their organizations plugged in enough to what is going on in the economy to realize that flying around in corporate jets—particularly to ask for taxpayer assistance—is a symbolic disaster???  That cluelessness alone suggests they shouldn’t get the money.  What if instead, all three of them took the best and nicest cars they make and drove them to Washington?  You know, on roads.  You know, like the rest of us?  At least the symbolism would suggest that they like, enjoy and are proud of their products. 

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