This is the challenge facing Martin Winterkorn, CEO of Volkswagen over the past few weeks. He’s been in an all-out fight for his job after being publicly attacked by the chairman of the company’s board of directors.
Ferdinand Piech, a former Volkswagen CEO, is among the largest shareholders of the German carmaker. On April 11, he told Der Spiegel he was withdrawing all support for Winterkorn.
It was a bombshell that has thrown the company into a full-blown leadership crisis.
It’s unclear to me what Piech hoped to accomplish by his public actions.
Winterkorn has done well over the past eight years to turn around Volkswagen, which suffered from poor sales and high labor costs. Under Winterkorn’s stewardship, Volkswagen’s production and sales grew considerably. So much so that this year, some observers believe VW could become the world’s largest car maker by sales.
Despite his success, the company has challenges. Although various VW brands are doing well, others are not and industry analysts believe the core division is not performing well.
Into this situation comes Piech, a legend in the German business community who was Volkswagen CEO for 22 years. Unfortunately, Piech has a long track record of undermining VW’s executives, forcing at least one CEO to resign prematurely rather than suffer Piech’s attacks.
Although this is an extreme leadership crisis, it is not unusual for CEOs to face attacks from within, either from the executive level of an organization or the board. If you aspire to take the top leadership job in any organization, you should expect people will come after you.
Quite frankly, some CEOs who are really bad leaders deserve the grief they get. They need to be held accountable.
But this doesn’t seem to be the case here. Winterkorn has been, to a large extent, successful as CEO.
What I find particularly interesting about this story is his decision to fight for his job. Given his track record, he could certainly leave, spare himself the grief and find another top job in the auto industry. But that’s not how Winterkorn is wired and why I believe his story has a lesson for the rest of us. He’s demonstrated the fortitude to take a stand and fight for what he believes in.
He has the board, the union and employees in his corner. However, the reason he also needs to fight is that the drama playing out in public is not good for the company’s brand and reputation. It erodes the confidence that employees have in their senior leadership. At the very least, these important allies need to know that Winterkorn will not go quietly.
How would you respond in a similar situation? When you’ve been challenged have you taken a stand, or did you flee the situation?
This week’s Gut Check question: Do you have the fortitude to persevere through a power struggle?
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About the Author
Vince Molinaro is the Global Managing Director of Strategic Solutions at Lee Hecht Harrison. He is also the author of The Leadership Contract – a New York Times and USA Today bestseller. Vince has spent more than 20 years as an adviser to boards and senior executives looking to improve leadership in their organizations.Follow on Twitter More Content by Vince Molinaro