PATRIARCH interrupted Ferdinand Piëch, a Tough Act to Follow

The departure of the perfectionist at the helm leaves a gaping hole at Volkswagen, which now should work with “the elder” to find a successor.
Still in the picture: Ferdinand Piëch.

Respect and relief resonated throughout the homages paid to Ferdinand Piëch at Volkswagen’s annual shareholder meeting.  

Respect for the great achievements of the long-time chief executive officer and supervisory board chair.

And relief that “the elder” – as Mr. Piëch was called reverentially – is finally going away after bringing great unrest in his break with popular chief executive Martin Winterkorn.

But relief is a treacherous condition of the soul. It often leads us to believe that now everything will be good. In truth, though, not everything is good at Volkswagen.

After the departure of Mr. Piëch as supervisory board chief, Volkswagen is stuck in a process of emancipating itself from the almighty patriarch. This process has only just begun and it will take quite some time.

Many who now revere Mr. Piëch are secretly happy he is gone. But they will miss the father of Volkswagen’s success. He played three important roles.

Mr. Winterkorn and the whole group must now prove they can also pursue perfection without Mr. Piëch’s protection and drive.

First, Mr. Piëch was the eternal seeker of perfection. He gave the group its culture of never being satisfied, of always searching for something better. And no one else could demand that culture with such authenticity and expertise. That goes back to his successes as CEO of Audi, which brought him to the top of Volkswagen and ended as chief of the supervisory board.

Under his decades-long leadership, the Volkswagen group became great. Certainly he could be ruthless and exploited his power. And yet Mr. Piëch was not feared during plant tours because of his leadership style, but because of his near pathological pursuit of perfection. With his extensive technical know-how, he could almost smell a botched job.

Second, Mr. Piëch was the eternal father of the company. He was an institution, and in his shadow others could flourish. As the patriarch, he was the breakwater for the company and its managers. Martin Winterkorn is the best example of that. He started in Audi’s management at the same time, and became great in the shadow of Mr. Piëch.

Mr. Winterkorn and the whole group must now prove they can also pursue perfection without Mr. Piëch’s shadow, protection and drive. When the emperor exits, there’s a danger of too many small kings pulling in different directions.

Third, Mr. Piëch was the stable anchor on the supervisory board. His successes, his know-how, his pursuit of perfection and his status as undisputed patriarch made him the natural leader of a complex body. On Volkswagen’s supervisory board, strong workers’ representatives meet with major family shareholders, regional politicians and representatives of government investment funds from Qatar.

In leading this diverse board, his word carried enormous weight. There is no other way to explain how his sudden “distance” from Mr. Winterkorn created a media echo – surely it seemed to mean that Mr. Winterkorn was on the way out.

Now it will be very difficult to fill this gap on the supervisory board. There will be days when people at Volkswagen will wish for a decree again, like many “the elder” made over the years.

Does this mean that the emancipation of the Volkswagen group is wrong? No. It is absolutely right. The era of the 78-year-old at the top of Volkswagen is over and he knows that himself.

And yet, despite all the wounds and anger toward “the elder,” it would do Volkswagen leadership and shareholders good to work one last time with him.

The leadership crisis will only end when a suitable successor for Mr. Piëch is found – one who has the stuff to carry his spirit forward in a positive way.

Although Mr. Piëch missed the chance to prepare a successor, he should be closely involved in the upcoming search. Only then can Volkswagen slowly emancipate itself from its eternal father.

If that does not happen, then Ferdinand Piëch will remain an uncontrollable and unpredictable major shareholder – who could, and presumably would, bring continued unrest to Volkswagen.


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