Sergio Marchionne: “leadership is a privilege and a noble vocation.”

26 July 2018

In April 2011 Sergio Marchionne was a guest of Bologna Business School to share his thoughts on the main challenges faced by our society: the European Union, the competitiveness of Italian companies on the global market, the immigration issue and the leadership.

“Closing your eyes or thinking that the solution is always someone else’s job, makes us complicit in the problem,”
he said to those present at the lecture. Bologna Business School wants to remember him through the greatness of his own words, proposing the main points of the speech addressed to the Community of BBS and, in particular, to the students, the future leaders of the country.


Ladies and gentlemen, dear students, good morning to all.

I would especially like to thank Dr. Nicastro for the invitation and Professor Bergami for giving me the opportunity to be here with you. The task assigned to me today is to talk to you about leadership. But there are at least two premises for me to do.

The first is the fact that leadership is one of the most difficult things to deal with, because beyond the endless list of books on the subject, leadership has not a single solution and can not be reduced to a managerial theory. It is something much deeper, which is highlighted by a set of characteristics and behaviors that have their origins in the minds and hearts of people, in their values. Because of this, words are often insufficient.

The second premise concerns the fact that, even if they put me behind a desk, I am not a professor and I have no academic recipes to tell you today. I do another job, away from the classrooms. I deal with industry. What I can do with you today is to share my professional experiences up to the last one, that of Fiat’s CEO and more recently also of Chrysler, and the one I have matured as a person.

You will all remember that in 2004 Fiat was in a desperate situation. Nobody would have bet on its future. But there were specific reasons why the company was at that point. It was a complex cocktail of elements that over time were added to one another, turning one of the most dynamic and innovative companies – with more than a hundred years of history and among the founders of the car industry – into an immobile giant running out of ideas.

The managerial body was frozen in a hierarchical and vertical structure, where decisions were slow and the management was just adding complexity to an already difficult situation. What we did was to dismantle the rigidity of the organization, creating a flatter and faster one. We intervened in the major areas, such as Engineering, Purchasing, Sales and Manufacturing. We have created function links across sectors to exploit all possible synergies and make the company more efficient. We went back to putting the customer and the product at the center of our strategy. But the most important thing is that at the base of all these activities we have placed a new concept of leadership, as a key element for the management of people and change. This has allowed us to start a path of extraordinary growth that until 2008, until the outbreak of the great international crisis, led Fiat to support the market, to gain shares and to grind profits. So much so that in 2008 we achieved the highest operating result in our company’s 111-year history.

What has been achieved back then is primarily due to the mentality and skills – technical and cultural – of the group of leaders who led the company. Brave people, with the taste of the challenge and the desire to create their own future. Individuals who do not undergo change, but seek it and often stimulate it. Men and women who understand the concept of service, of community, of respect for others. And they have an extraordinary ability to bring out the best from people, helping them to have confidence in themselves and to grow, as men before as professionals.

Talking about leadership today, I do not want to give you the impression of something theoretical and a bit abstract. Reflecting on leadership requires going beyond company boundaries and adopting a broader vision. One of the most important elements of being a leader in today’s world is the awareness of being in a phase of historical discontinuity. We must be aware that the age in which we live places us at a crossroads and makes our choices even more meaningful. The variables and factors involved are too many and too complex to become the object of an exact calculation, which accurately returns the figure of our future. But what we can already know with the utmost clarity is that this future depends on the vision and the clarity with which all of us – the industrial world, the economic world and the political world – will take decisions today for tomorrow. It is a question that is generally valid for every sector and in every country. The crisis has exposed our fragility everywhere.

I have already said that we suffer from a serious handicap because of the lack of competitiveness of the Italian system. We are in 118th place – out of 139 countries – in terms of labor market efficiency. We are in 48th place in terms of competitiveness, in line with all the industrialized countries, behind even the smaller ones. This situation keeps foreign investors away from Italy, pushes our companies to leave, erodes the growth of wages, puts at risk the job prospects and the standard of living of future generations. The comments I made on the reality of the country were judged offensive by someone. They accused me, in particular, of not loving Italy. As if the ability to react and compete were not important values ​​to be exposed and protected. As if the intellectual honesty, which was the basis of the recovery of Fiat and Chrysler, were not the starting point for the release of pride and dignity that we all need. I well know that there is a tenacious Italy, which tries to resist and grow, despite everything.

Our country is known for its creativity, its history and its culture. It is seen as the country of ideas. But all this is not enough. We must be known as the country of doing. From today’s situation we can go back to that idea of origin, born in the years of the construction of Italy. An idea that builds on confidence in our nation and on a society capable of rediscovering the motives of its unity and getting up again, rather than deepening those of its own division and falling. This is the profound sense that we must rediscover.

We all have the responsibility to enhance the opportunities that this era offers us, we have the duty to commit ourselves to what we do and spend ourselves in the first person to put these capabilities at the disposal of the future. Today, more than ever, it is important to adopt a long-term perspective; It is essential that the best forces of society come together and share great goals.

Fight for freedom, for a dignified life or even just for survival. The wave of immigrants from Tunisia has not only brought to light the tragedy of thousands of people, but it has again denounced the true European drama: the absence of a compact and single-voice supranational organization. This is a problem that concerns the whole of Europe and needs to be tackled and solved at a Community level. Italian coasts are first of all European borders. We Europeans are those who, all together, have chosen to reap the benefits of an open system without constraints. We are the ones that have pushed for the breaking down of barriers, to create a single market, to promote cooperation between states. This is the spirit with which we signed the Treaty of Rome, 54 years ago. This is the commitment that all founders of the European Community have assumed. The values ​​and principles on which the idea and the dream of a united Europe can be upheld can not be betrayed, but must be protected and respected. But the emergence of these days is not just a question of territories and hospitality. The point is that we have been so closed and oriented towards ourselves that we have not seen – or did not want to see – what was happening in North Africa.

We have accepted that the economic and social divide became ever wider; we ignored it until it came knocking on the door. The Western world has the duty to question its own role. Sometimes I wonder if we have such rigid mental models that – even in the face of clear signs of threat from the market – we continue to remain indifferent in our well-being and do not feel discomfort in front of those who have nothing. I wonder if our political leaders would have been able to create such a large coalition if the war in Afghanistan or Iraq was a campaign against poverty and not against terrorism.

I wonder how many soldiers would be willing to defend not their own country, but the future of those who have nothing. I wonder if a war against poverty would ever bring the largest television networks in the world to guarantee coverage 24 hours a day. Or if it would have at least the same audience as Big Brother. I do not have the answers. I have only a lot of questions. But I believe that the future is not just a responsibility of governments. It is a personal responsibility for each of us. It is a challenge that calls us all together, with a direct commitment, day after day. Closing your eyes or thinking that the solution is always someone else’s job, makes us complicit in the problem. I speak with you today because those who have the responsibility of managing a global company have the duty to broaden their mind and look beyond the walls of an office. I speak with you because your commitment goes beyond a simple professional duty. If there is an essence in leadership, it is this.

Take upon yourself the moral obligation to do, to participate in the construction process of tomorrow. Feel the personal responsibility to give back to the next generations the hope of a better future. This is what makes leadership a privilege and a noble vocation. Before concluding I would like to share with you one last reflection, which directly concerns the way in which you will decide to take your own path. Much of our life is punctuated by well-defined moments. Training is one of these. The diploma, the degree, a master’s degree are all important milestones in our personal history. When we reach them we have the impression of coming out of a series of rules and schemes, and of being finally free. Free to choose for ourselves and start building what we want. But feeling free and being really are two very different things. The freedom of which I speak is something that is within you. It depends on how you will keep your mind open: to the new, to the different, to the infinite possibilities that will arise, without you ever looking for them or even imagining them. If there is any advice I can give you this evening, it’s to not let the choices you’ve made at some point in your life – choices on the scope of study, on the job sector, on the career path – shut out everything else. There’s a lot more outside the door. Being truly free means to know that at in any moment you can choose a new direction, a new goal.

There will be no one to push you out of the routine or the sense of security associated with habit. It is a task that will be up to you and you alone. But it is also the only way you can mature and get wings. I can only hope you will find the courage to do it every day, to listen to your heart and to appreciate what is beautiful in the world. I wish each of you to be truly free, to get up every morning and, looking at everything around you, say “I like it!”.

Thank you.

07/04/2011 – Sergio Marchionne at Bologna Business School



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