Abstract: Lee Iacocca and the Romance of Transformational Leadership

Bert Spector

Abstract

American culture, with its emphasis on individualistic values, has always been susceptible to what James Meindl, et al. called the "romance of leadership." That romance became especially strong in the 1970s and 1980s with the elevation of Lee Iacocca to the status of "folk hero" and "poster child" for a new theory of leadership: transformational leadership. The Iacocca phenomenon acted as an intermediary between the larger historical context—the age of compression and general malaise—and the writings of Noel Tichy, David Ulrich, Bernard Bass, and Warren Bennis. Academically, the work of Abraham Zaleznik and Robert Abernathy and William Hayes offered an intellectual context that helped shape the transformational leadership argument. A critical weighing of the use of Iacocca as the model of transformational leadership starts with appreciation of the appeal that Iacocca's model offered before questioning the validity of that use of Iacocca. It is possible to examine in hindsight Iacocca's impact on Chrysler, therefore, to determine the degree to which Chrysler was, in fact, transformed. In addition, the paper looks at data available to transformational leadership authors of the 1980s to question the claim that Iacocca acted in a way that conformed to their own conceptualization.