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The Leadership Voice: Nissan’s Ghosn and Chrysler’s Nardelli Driving in Opposite Directions

The December 1, 2008 issue of BusinessWeek magazine has 2 very interesting interviews with auto industry leaders. Maria Bartiromo interviews Nissan/Renault chief Carlos Ghosn for her weekly Facetime column and several pages later BusinessWeek Editor-In-Chief John Byrne interviews Chrysler CEO Robert l. Nardelli. Each executive presents a very different communication style which make the interviews interesting reading.

There is no question that both of these men are accomplished global executives. Both also come across as tough, no-nonsense leaders. In his interview Ghosn comes across as confident but measured in his words and tone. He does a great job of staying away from the hot potato questions tossed his way like “Do you support a bailout for the Big Three?” His answer,

A part of the bailout has already been decided—the $25 billion to make the industry more fuel-efficient. It’s the right thing to do because the car industry by itself cannot find enough financing to do that alone. We have asked European governments and other governments to do the same thing. So this we support 100%. For the rest of it…we have no opinion.

When asked a direct question like “Would you consider buying Chrysler outright?” he answers succinctly, “No. It’s out of the question.”

When asked about his opinion on unions and his American peers, his response is nothing if not political. “Isn’t part of the problem in Detroit management-related, and hasn’t there been a failure of imagination by U.S. carmakers?”

I don’t think so—no. I’m on different boards, and I talk to my fellow CEOs in energy, utilities, commodities, etc. Everybody is facing the financial drought. A lot of people are cutting back investments even though they are in very healthy industries because they are scared they won’t find the financing.

Contrast Ghosn’s responses with Nardelli’s who soon after the interview appeared on Capital Hill with his American auto executive peers looking for government support.

John Byrne: There are still a lot of people who are against a bailout, Bob.

There’s around a million people dependent on Chrysler’s success. So you could say, well, let them go down. But I think the difference is—and I don’t mean to belittle the loss of Lehman Brothers—but it’s one thing to lose a company; what we’re dealing with here is the loss of an industry because of the interdependence of the Big Three and our supplier network. I think you will see a ripple effect that will be unprecedented.

John Byrne: Can Chrysler go it alone without government support?

I think it would be very difficult, John, to be able to make it through this unprecedented downturn.

Between now and the end of the year, we’ve announced yet another major restructuring. We will have to furlough another 5,000 salaried employees by yearend. We will probably permanently idle two more factories. And so again, gut-wrenching decisions, but decisions we have to make.

We cannot assume that we’re going to get financial support. We cannot hope that the industry is going to turn around. We have to make these bold, daring decisions to be able to get through this. And that’s what we’re doing.

Interesting I originally read the article in the magazine where the published response to the above question was simply what I placed in bold above. I then went to the BusinessWeek website which published Nardelli’s complete response to the question which added a little helpful context.

To me Ghosn presents himself as a confident executive in command of his organization(s) and adjusting to market dynamics. On the other hand, Nardelli’s responses have an hint of a threat (“I don’t want to have to tell you I told you so”) and helplessness about them.

Which leader would you rather follow?

About the author

Peter A. Mello, Founder/Editor Founder of Weekly Leader and Sea-Fever Consulting, LLC, a leadership development and strategic communications consultancy. Previously, CEO of an international nonprofit organization and COO of a national insurance/risk management services firm. Peter has been leading people and managing organizations for over 30 years, writes a leadership column for MarineNews magazine and blogs about maritime culture at Sea-Fever. Follow him on Twitter.

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