Wondering where my next neon will come from

One of the best songs, “Jungleland,” on Bruce Springsteen’s best album, “Born to Run,” features the lines, “Barefoot girl sitting on the hood of Dodge, drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain.” I always liked that lyric. Maybe that’s why I have a soft spot in my old heart for Chrysler products. My current car is a yellow Dodge Neon. It’s my second Neon in seven years. The first one was red. Hey, that’s why it’s called a Neon, right?
I bought both Neons at a Dodge dealership, now defunct, right on West Chester Pike. That dealership isn’t the only sliver of the Chrysler Corporation that’s in jeopardy. Ten years ago, those German elves who make Mercedes Benz luxury cars bought Chrysler for some $36 billion. Earlier this year Daimler-Benz practically gave the company away to a private equity outfit for $6 billion. Anyone who thinks that corporate culture is a myth should study the marriage and divorce of Daimler and Chrysler.
Cerberus Capital Management now will take its shot at turning Chrysler around. The investment firm’s chosen champion is Robert Nardelli, late of Home Depot. Nardelli angered Home Depot’s shareholders and shocked many of us common folk when he was tossed out of the CEO’s suite equipped with a golden parachute reportedly worth $210 million. The retailer’s stock price drooped about 10 percent from 2000 to 2006 while Nardelli gobbled up paychecks totaling $124 million. In fairness to Nardelli, he did oversee the doubling of Home Depot’s gross annual sales to around $91 billion during his time there, while profits also doubled to about $5.8 billion. So to the extent you believe in the “great man” theory of history, Nardelli can argue he deserves his $334 mil.
I guess when you are sailing through such compensation stratospheres, you can stop worrying about more money and start focusing on stuff like your legacy. As Forrest Gump might say, “Nardelli is rich as Davy Crockett,” but his ego worries about his reputation. He wants a winner. How hard does he want it? Well, he’s accepted a salary of $1.00 per year. If Chrysler turns around, Nardelli gets another fortune. If it tanks, I guess he can frame the buck and hang it in his mansion.
So, what about the “great man” theory? When we think about World War II, we tend to see Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ike and Patton and Monty arrayed on one side of the battlefield against Hitler and Mussolini and Rommel on the other. Stalin sort of looms in the shadows, an evil dictator. But, as Winston said, when asked how he could ally himself with the Communist despot, “If Hitler invaded Hell I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.” Like the devil, these historic figures loom as supernatural giants.
We tend to think of CEOs in the same way. Enron and some of the other scandals of the late 90s and early part of this century debunked the “cult of the CEO,” which dominated the previous decade and a half. Yet we still cheer the company’s top manager when the firm makes money and boo him when it flops.
Some highly respected scholars of leadership debunk the notion of “great men.” James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of the well-established tome, “The Leadership Challenge,” state flatly in their book, “The ‘great person’ — woman or man — theory of leadership is just plain wrong.” They quickly qualify that flat assertion, adding, “Or, we should say, the theory that there are only a few great men and women who can lead us to greatness is just plain wrong.” Instead, they argue, “Leadership is an identifiable set of skills and practices that are available to all of us, not just a few charismatic men and women.” Leaders at all levels, they add, “are the everyday heroes of our world.”
If Kouzes and Posner got it right, then shareholders are being bilked every day to the tune of seven, eight and nine figure pay packages dolled out by boards of directors to CEOs. And CEOs who grab such pay packages may simply be ordinary, everyday leaders with extraordinary egos and ambitions.
As interesting as all this is for a professor to speculate about, when next year rolls around and I’m ready to trade in my yellow Neon on — oh, I don’t know — maybe a Kelly green one, I just hope Dodge is still around to sell me one. That’s where my rubber meets the road. How about it, Mr. Nardelli?
Jim Castagnera, formerly of Jim Thorpe, is the Associate Provost/Associate Counsel at Rider University and a 2007-08 Fellow of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


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