Carlos Ghosn's transformation from business icon to international fugitive was entirely predictable, industry leaders say. But his next act could surprise everyone.


FILE PHOTO - Carlos Ghosn, Chairman and CEO of the Renault-Nissan Alliance, gestures as he speaks during the presentation of the Renault's new Alpine sports concept car

  • Carlos Ghosn, former CEO and chairman of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance, was arrested in Japan in late 2018 on allegations of financial malfeasance. His fall from power was the most extraordinary in the history of the auto industry.
  • Ghosn spent over 100 days in a Japanese jail, and posted millions in bail. While he was awaiting trial, he staged a dramatic escape at the end of 2019 from Japan to Lebanon.
  • He’d claimed he was innocent, but he was facing a nearly 100% conviction rate by Japanese prosecutors. Lebanon does not extradite its citizens to Japan.
  • Ghosn pledged to restore his reputation, and he accused Nissan of playing a “dirty game” to remove him from the alliance he’d built so that a deeper integration with Renault would be impossible.
  • Ghosn is a complicated business leader. This is the story of his rise, fall, and Hollywood-worthy escape from a Japanese justice system that he’s accused of abusing his human rights.
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By early 2019, Carlos Ghosn had been through the wringer.

Haggard, gaunt, and handcuffed, he appeared in a Japanese court after being arrested at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport on November 19, 2018. The authorities later indicted him on charges of concealing income and violating the trust of the company he’d rebuilt from crisis to the global powerhouse: Nissan.

Ghosn, then 64, was incarcerated at the Tokyo Detention House and held in solitary confinement. He’d already been arrested and rearrested three times. Anybody unfamiliar with the largely closed world of Japanese justice was getting a crash course in prosecutorial tactics; those who were familiar might’ve recalled the ordeal of Julie Hamp, who came to Japan to head up Toyota communications — the highest-ranking women ever at a Japanese automaker — in 2015 but who was arrested and held in custody for 20 days because she had Oxycontin shipped to her in the country following an operation. Never charged, she still resigned her position.

Ghosn would eventually be jailed for over 100 days, before being let out on $9 million in bail (after subsequent rearrest, his total bail would top $14 million). In April, he was arrested a fourth time, then released. Confined to a house in Japan’s capital, his activities were monitored 24 hours a day.

In December, Ghosn released a statement confirming that he’d fled Japan through Turkey, an escape that would captivate the world and inspire comparisons to a spy movie. Tales circulated of Ghosn being snuck from jet to jet in a musical-instrument case, with the transfer managed by a former Green Beret turned mercenary security operative. Ghosn had fled Japan and was in Lebanon, the country of his youth, where he maintained citizenship, where he was widely revered, and where his face appeared on billboards above the message “We Are All Carlos Ghosn.”

Carlos Ghosn billboard Beirut Lebanon

He would “no longer be held hostage by a rigged Japanese justice system where guilt is presumed, discrimination is rampant, and basic human rights are denied,” he said is a statement at the time. “I have not fled justice,” he added. “I have escaped injustice and political persecution.”

The household-name CEO had become an international fugitive, pursued by Interpol, and effectively seeking asylum in one of his multiple homelands. Netflix had to deny rumors that it had inked a deal with Ghosn. The mighty leader hadn’t just fallen; he’d slipped its chains and was on the lam. And without question, the disgraced hero was a celebrity again.

A celebrity CEO and auto-industry rock star

Carlos Ghosn Nissan Leaf

In November 2009, a younger Carlos Ghosn stood in the parking lot of Dodger Stadium, in Los Angeles, a man at the height of his power.

He was the most unlikely legend in the history of the auto industry, a diminutive, Brazilian-born, raised-in-Lebanon, educated-in-France citizen of the world who carried three passports. Ghosn, then in his mid-50s, had spent two decades in the relative business backwater of Michelin selling tires before jumping to Renault and forming an initially much-derided alliance with Nissan.

The LA event extended his strange rise. Ghosn had never spent time behind the wheel of a race car, as Enzo Ferrari had, his last name wasn’t “Ford,” and his early ascent had taken place in France, a country whose influence on the world’s auto industry lagged behind the US, Germany, Japan, and, even more recently, South Korea. He wasn’t introducing a new supercar, nor was he presiding over the launch of a hulking pickup or SUV, the moneymakers that Detroit cranked out by the millions every year.

Rather, Ghosn was showcasing Nissan’s new Leaf all-electric vehicle, a homely hatchback (really a rejiggered Versa hatchback) that was the basis of what he called Nissan’s “zero emission” strategy.

“It’s a real car, not a golf cart,” Ghosn told the scrum of reporters gathered in the November sunshine.

The Leaf prototype was barely more than a golf cart — offering only about 100 miles of range, it would appeal to the earliest of early adopters — but it presented Ghosn with the opportunity, using his characteristically brisk delivery, to proclaim that electric vehicles would make up 10% of global sales by 2020.

It was typical Ghosn sensei, a prediction from the heroic master of commerce, adopted by Japan and placed on a pedestal of renown: the trim little guy with the permanently furrowed brow, the dramatic eyebrows, surrounded by his lieutenants, wearing a neatly tailored suit but ditching the usual necktie (Southern California, after all), pontificating while the cameras clicked and the reporters scribbled.

FILE PHOTO: Former Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn gestures during a news conference at the Lebanese Press Syndicate in Beirut, Lebanon January 8, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

There was no reason to doubt his foresight (although EVs would manage just over 1% of sales in his time frame). Ghosn was, in the conservative realm of the global auto industry — and the ultraconservative Japanese corner of the industry — a complete rock star (if anything, calling him sensei was an understatement). And he knew it. With the car business reeling in 2009 from the bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler by the federal government, followed the bankruptcies of two of the once formidable Detroit Big Three, and with auto sales in America having plummeted during the financial crisis, Nissan was on its way to selling over 800,000 vehicles in the US in 2010. Before the financial crisis, the company had stunned naysayers by racking up an outsized operating profit for several years, a mass-market automaker flirting with a 10% margin.

Ghosn’s elevated league included CEOs such as Sergio Marchionne, who had led Fiat out of near insolvency, then engineered the Italian automaker’s acquisition of Chrysler from Chapter 11, taking the car business’ biggest basket case off the US government’s hands. Marchionne aspired to be like Ghosn, who had a 10-year head start on his outspoken, chain-smoking, Canadian-born emulator. (After Ghosn’s escape from Japan, he’d reveal he was in active discussions with Fiat chairman John Elkann to bring Fiat Chrysler Automobiles into the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance. Nissan declined to comment on those claims.)

FILE PHOTO: Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne answers questions from the media during the FCA Investors Day at the Chrysler World Headquarters in Auburn Hills, Michigan, U.S., on May 6, 2014.    REUTERS/Rebecca Cook/File Photo

The tire salesman was now the go-to CEO in the industry, the subject of his own manga comic in Japan, his career documented in two books, one of which he wrote. In the 2000s, as he willed the Renault-Nissan alliance into being, he was courted by the swashbuckling corporate raider Kirk Kerkorian and Kerkorian’s car-business guy, Jerry York, to bring a struggling GM into the alliance. (Ghosn also claimed that the Obama administration’s Auto Task Force overseer, former investment banker Steven Rattner, had offered him the GM CEO job in 2009. Ghosn said he regretted not taking it.)

Ford scion Bill Ford, the great-grandson of Henry Ford, has already tried to hire Ghosn to fix Ford Motor Co., but the deal died when Ghosn demanded both the CEO and the chairman-of-the-board titles. Undeterred, Bill Ford tried again in 2006, but by then Ghosn might’ve seen the writing on the wall. The next year, Ford would post a nearly $7 billion loss in the fourth quarter, its largest ever. The company turned to Alan Mulally, a Boeing executive, who mortgaged the Blue Oval’s assets to raise $23.4 billion just as the financial crisis was hitting. The daring move saved Ford from GM and Chrysler’s fate.

Ghosn’s titanic reputation derived from a combination of business brutality, peculiar charisma, a constitution that didn’t appear to require rest or relaxation, a technocratic and highly rational mindset, and, perhaps most important, excellent timing. In the era of globalism, there was no more prominently global executive than Carlos Ghosn (“If Davos Were a Person, It Would Be Carlos Ghosn,” Bloomberg declared in 2017). He might have had offices on the ground on several continents, but his natural headquarters was the cabin of a Gulfstream at cruising altitude.

In many ways, Ghosn’s media image was at odds with his business talents. His core skill involved remorselessly wielding a blade, the oldest move in the book. The auto industry in the 1990s, when Ghosn left Michelin for Renault (with Peugeot, a carmaker that’s bound up with France’s postwar national character), was reluctantly adapting to extreme levels of competition. For decades, many auto executives had been able to avoid tough decisions — especially in France, where employment in the industry is a thorny political issue, bound up with national price and unions — because when times are good, an ocean of money is sloshing through the business. The trick is to avoid going belly up when the tide turns.

He was dubbed “Le cost killer” for his approach. “It’s sexy, there’s blood in it, there’s meanness,” he told the Financial Times in an interview from November of 2018, published the same month as his dramatic arrest in Japan on allegations of financial malfeasance but conducted when he still had the run of the globe, including restaurants in Paris, and could still captivate journalists on the Wall Street–City of London axis.

Ghosn often distanced himself from the notion that he was a reducer of companies; he was instead a self-styled visionary, charting a new course for carmakers held back by the influence of the state or the inflexible, hierarchical history of Japan’s business culture, where Nissan has always existed in the long shadows cast by Toyota and Honda.

It was, in part, smoke and mirrors and luck. Nissan attacked Honda’s market share in the US the old-fashioned way, by knocking thousands off the sticker prices of vehicles while Honda refused to undermine its profits in a race to the bottom. Nissan’s full-size pickup, the Titan, sold in the mid-five figures annually and was no threat to Detroit, and the carmaker’s US portfolio contained a lot of slow-selling sedans.

Still, when the market swung decisively to crossover SUVs, Nissan dealers were prepared to rake in sales with the Rogue, a compact SUV that put Nissan neck and neck with Toyota’s RAV4 and Honda’s CR-V.

“He’s not flawless, not the perfect leader,” Karl Brauer, the executive publisher of Kelley Blue Book and Autotrader and a veteran industry analyst, said. He said Nissan had bolstered sales in recent years, pursuing what he termed unrealistic goals, by leaning on profit-sapping incentives and fleet sales.

“That can work for a while,” he said. And it did, until Nissan retreated from the tactics in the face of posting profitless quarters. Sales, understandably, took a hit, and the carmaker lost US market share. “The chickens have come home to roost,” Brauer added.

But the daily trench warfare of the business — “You have to fight for every sale,” Bill Ford once told me — wasn’t for Ghosn. Nor was the type of deliberate and transparent planning that Mulally brought to Ford. Ghosn, by contrast, performed leadership. And he performed it well. He understood that in the era of globalism — when vehicles built on similar engineering platforms but sold in multiple countries were mechanical commodities, and when money could flow in and out Renault and Nissan on untamed rivers — a CEO needed to symbolize his ideology. His enemy, as he was happy to remind the media once he had fled Japan and was pleading his case from Beirut, was consensus. Ghosn was running the corporate equivalent of a country, and long before Donald Trump became president in 2016, Ghosn was of the “I alone can fix it” school of strategy

ford,alan mulally

Leaders in Japan, Germany, and Detroit were hunkered down and huddled with their teams, oppressed by the sheer complexity of building and selling millions of cars and trucks every month. They were provincial, small-minded, clubby. But Ghosn was expansive, globetrotting, cosmopolitan. He didn’t sweat the details — he had people to do that for him. In over a decade of covering him and his adventures, I never once heard him enthuse over a specific car. No mere product was bigger than his masterpiece, the alliance itself. Even the Leaf was simply a means to a greater end: the alliance’s prophetic dominance in a world going electric.

“He was never much of a rule follower, never much for boundaries,” Dan Neil, the Pulitzer Prize-winning auto critic for The Wall Street Journal, told me,” adding that Ghosn was “the most stylish, dandyish of car executives, up there with John DeLorean and Gerry McGovern.” (DeLorean was an industry legend who flamed out in spectacular fashion with his stainless-steel-skinned sports car in the 1980s, now better know from the “Back to the Future” films, and McGovern is the outspoken design head of Land Rover and has been known to undertake wardrobe changes when showcasing a new vehicle.)

Outside the industry, Ghosn looked dazzling, but to many insiders he was a merciless egomaniac, obsessed with his own media coverage, fixated on his compensation, and determined to prevent underlings from challenging his imperious control of the alliance. He had enemies but didn’t care. More dangerously, he was a Westerner who had amassed power in what was both derisively and admiringly referred to as “Japan Inc.” — the post-World War II merger of Japan’s nationalistic culture with its astonishing business recovery from its almost complete devastation in the 1940s.

Carlos Ghosn World Cup Brazil

For a non-Japanese, that power is borrowed at best. Ghosn pushed his luck too far in 2018, attempting to execute a deeper integration — but not a full merger — of Nissan and Renault. It was not, as Japan Inc. saw it, a merger of equals. He went from being a man standing in the sun in Los Angeles in 2009 to being a man locked up in a Tokyo jail cell in 2019.

The ensuing months — which saw Ghosn imprisoned for more than three months, cut off from communication with his wife, stripped of his chairmanships of Nissan, Renault, and Mitsubishi, released and rearrested repeatedly, placed in legal limbo after posting millions of dollars in bail money, awaiting a trial on only one of the charges lodged against him at an undetermined future date — did not depict Japanese justice in a flattering light. Medieval was more like it. Ghosn wasn’t simply in legal trouble. He was being humiliated, degraded, destroyed.

Free in Lebanon, he called it an “unspeakable ordeal,” imposed on him by a “corrupt system, designed to break my spirit and coerce my confession.”

It looked nothing like what would’ve happened to Ghosn in the US. But as an industry source told me, “People don’t get it — that’s just how it is in Japan.”

The 3 phases of Carlos Ghosn

Carlos Ghosn, Chairman and CEO of the Renault-Nissan Alliance, attends a round table discussion during Auto China 2016 auto show in Beijing April 25, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Ghosn’s ascent in the global auto industry, once he left Michelin after 18 years, could be separated into three phases.

The first phase, when he was newly arrived at Renault in the 1990s and preparing to create the alliance with Nissan, featured a down-to-earth leader who, according to a source who worked closely with him at the time, would carry his own bags off a commercial airline. Sure, he flew first class, but it was a far cry from a later version of Ghosn, cloistered in his Gulfstream.

This was when Ghosn developed his reputation for both ruthlessness and operational genius.

“He was super smart, driven, and had incredible energy,” former GM, BMW, and Chrysler executive Bob Lutz, one of the most outspoken people in the business, told me shortly after Ghosn was arrested in 2018. (Lutz had known Ghosn for decades, going back to the Michelin days.)

“He knew everything,” another source told me. “He made decisions quickly and took responsibility.”

In the risk-averse culture of Japanese corporations, this was a revelation. The buck stopped with Ghosn: If a vehicle was a hit, he took credit, but if it failed, he accepted the blame.

(Ghosn continued to demonstrate an ability to manage an enormous amount of information when he summarized and countered the charges against him at a press conference held on January 8, 2020, ranging from details of funds that were sent to the Middle East to declines in market capitalization at Nissan, Renault, and Mitsubishi.)

Carlos Ghosn

Phase two saw the Ghosn mythology take shape, as the alliance thrived against all odds (such match-ups in the auto industry have a rocky track record: Chrysler was at various times conjoined with Daimler and collaborating with Maserati). Even though Nissan’s resentment toward Renault’s eventual 43% stake was festering by 2018, in 1999 Nissan was a wreck, in desperate need of $5 billion from the French, with Ghosn part of the deal that yielded a 37% Renault stake and that promised to return Nissan to profitability after the automaker had lost billions of dollars and taken on billions more in debt.

“It was brilliant to do an alliance instead of a full merger, with all the delays and politics that would have involved,” a source who has worked for major US and European carmakers said. (Unequal voting rights, with Renault harboring decision-making power, were, however, always a sore point. Ghosn said that it created a “big bitterness” in Japan.)

These were the golden years, when Ghosn became Nissan’s CEO in 2001 and began to groom — at least to outward appearances — his successors. Men like Carlos Tavares, now CEO of France’s PSA Group, which bought GM’s long-struggling Opel division in Europe in 2017. Tavares is turning Opel around and has undertaken a 50-50 merger with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles that would create the world’s second-largest automaker, behind the VW Group. From Portugal, Tavares shared a language with the Brazilian-born Ghosn — and learned to share an appetite for slashing costs.

Andy Palmer

And men like Andy Palmer, a street-smart punk-rock enthusiast from England who spent over two decades at Nissan before taking his marketing acumen to Aston Martin in 2014. It was no easy assignment: Aston had endured seven bankruptcies. But Palmer steered the automaker, famous for its James Bond associations, to a 2018 public offering (but not out of the woods, as the marque almost immediately began to renew its historic travails, as a public company).

These were high-profile assignments for high-profile executives. But they were also the results of Tavares and Palmer having few choices within Renault-Nissan. There was an iron ceiling, and it was named Carlos Ghosn.

Phase three occupied the period from the late 2010s through Ghosn’s semiretirement, when he stymied the desires of consiglieres such as Tavares to take over chief-executive roles at the alliance and, ominously, began to believe his own endlessly adulatory press, according to industry observers.

Nissan upgraded his private jet to the top-of-the-line Gulfstream V (and later upgraded it again to a G650). He shuttled among his numerous residences, cultivating what Lutz called a “God-like CEO” status. He had US dealers ship a small fleet of Nissan Armada SUVs to Brazil, for his personal use.

“He was a total despot,” Lutz told me “He’d hire people, and, after a certain period, fire them with never a word of explanation.”

Lutz added that he’d heard stories about how Ghosn reminded the peons on the industry of his lofty position by swaggering around auto shows while a lackey played the Great Man’s personal theme music on a boom box. The image fit. My lasting memory of Ghosn during this period was watching him, in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump in 2016, hold court at the 2017 Detroit Auto Show. Clearly baffled by what Trump might mean for Renault-Nissan and its global operations, Ghosn attempted to define what he thought “America first” might mean, before passing the mic to one of several underlings to fill in the blanks.

It was a preview of Ghosn’s looming political blind spot. His trust in his team was his Achilles’ heel. When he was arrested in 2018, he later said he was shocked. He had no idea it was coming.

Obsessed with his compensation and haunted by his reputation as nothing but a cost-cutter

FILE PHOTO: 70th Cannes Film Festival – Screening of the film

During his imperious phase, Ghosn divorced his wife of 28 years and remarried four years later, celebrating his nuptials with a lavish party at the Palace of Versailles outside Paris. And while the alliance continued its impressive run — by 2016, it would add Mitsubishi, and it ended 2018 as the largest automaker by sales in the world, at nearly 11 million vehicles — Ghosn privately seethed, as he had for years, over his compensation and the perception that his success owed more to being Mr. Cost Killer than it did to any overarching vision for the future.

He was, for example, nagged by Toyota’s progress with gas-electric hybrids, such as the Prius, a source told me. Beneficially, this drove Ghosn to quixotically support the Leaf at a time when there was almost no market for battery-electric vehicles. Leaf would go on to become the best-selling electric car of all time.

The fixation, however, also led Ghosn to become an advocate for Better Place, a startup that emerged from Israel’s tech scene in the mid-2000s, pursuing battery-swapping as a solution to the limited range and long recharging times of electric cars. Better Place’s founder and CEO, Shai Agassi, was a charismatic Davos Man who complimented Ghosn’s evolving third-phase persona, and in 2008 Renault-Nissan struck a deal with Better Place to supply electric vehicles to the company. Battery swapping never took off, and, by 2013, Better Place was heading into a liquidation bankruptcy.

John Elkann Sun Valley

Ghosn also continued to nurse grudges, particularly when it came to money. He had perks galore, including homes in Brazil and Lebanon owned by Nissan (Ghosn is now living in the Beirut property). But like all high-ranking Japanese auto executives, he was paid less than his peers outside Japan. He was underpaid relative to, say, General Motors CEO Mary Barra: She made $23 million in 2017 while Ghosn made $17 million. But Barra’s compensation was a mix of salary and stock, while Ghosn brought home his millions through three separate companies.

The alliance had responded to his complaints by concocting assorted sketchy compensation arrangements with Ghosn. None of it would have passed muster at a less complicated enterprise, but the sprawling, multinational nature of the organization made it possible.

In his defense, Ghosn said some payments in question were both signed off on by Nissan and considered as deferred compensation and never dispensed.

In response to a request for comment, Nissan shared a “Special Report to Improve Governance,” delivered to the board of directors on March 27, 2019. It detailed Ghosn’s compensation arrangements and explained why they were both unorthodox and how they led to Ghosn’s dismissal from Nissan, following his arrest. Nissan declined to comment on the charges against Ghosn in Japan. (Renault didn’t respond to a request for comment, but Nissan provided references to Renault and Mitsubishi’s media statements.)

Nissan’s North American communications representatives provided a statement. “Nissan discovered numerous acts of misconduct by Ghosn through a robust, thorough internal investigation,” the company said, adding that it “determined that he was not fit to serve as an executive, and removed him from all offices.”

It went on: “The internal investigation found incontrovertible evidence of various acts of misconduct by Ghosn, including misstatement of his compensation and misappropriation of the company’s assets for his personal benefit.”

For Ghosn, the pay maneuvers were not only justified — they were the right thing to do, given his perceptions about his pay disparity. He resented that people resented him for wanting what he thought he deserved, a source explained.

The situation might’ve persisted even as Ghosn relinquished his CEO roles and entered his 60s. But then he miscalculated.

Again. He had already miscalculated in anointing Hiroto Saikawa as Nissan’s CEO in 2017. Saikawa represented the restoration of Japan Inc. at the helm of Nissan, where Ghosn’s reign had caused the Japanese to resent the outsized contribution, compared to Renault’s, that Nissan made to the alliance’s bottom line.

Renault Chairman Jean-Dominique Senard, left, and Nissan CEO Hiroto Saikawa speak at the start of a joint press conference following a board meeting at the Nissan headquarters in Yokohama, near Tokyo, Tuesday, March 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

As chairman of the alliance, Ghosn had undertaken a gamble. The merger that he had so deftly avoided in the late 1990s and early 2000s would no longer be dodged. Nissan and Renault would become one. And FCA could join, creating a global auto giant.

The response, a source told me, was an orchestrated removal of Ghosn from power by Japan Inc. It was a palace coup, with the unwitting king apprehended after he got off his private jet at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, herded into a small room where authorities were waiting, then thrown in jail for months, left to the devices of Japanese justice and its near-100% conviction rate.

In an emailed statement, Japan’s minister of justice argued that the high rate of conviction was a positive feature of the nation’s system. “There is an established practice in Japan’s prosecutors offices only to indict a suspect where there is a high likelihood of court’s conviction based on sufficient evidence, so as to avoid an innocent person to suffer from the burden of bearing judicial expenses,” the statement read.

Of course that explanation didn’t alter the widespread impression that in Japan one was presumed guilty before being proven innocent. And once Ghosn fled to Lebanon, what had been a theory about why he’d been lured to Japan only to be arrested after his plane landed became a key part of his official defense.

FILE PHOTO: Former Nissan Motor Chariman Carlos Ghosn leaves the Tokyo Detention House in Tokyo, Japan April 25, 2019. REUTERS/Issei Kato

“The facts demonstrate that the investigation was never about finding the truth; it was initiated and carried out for the specific, predetermined purpose of taking down Carlos Ghosn to prevent him from further integrating Nissan and Renault, which threatened the independence of Nissan, one of Japan’s iconic, flagship companies,” his lawyers argued in a statement released a week after his escape, responding to Nissan’s claims about its own probe into Ghosn’s alleged malfeasance.

Ghosn’s control had been under assault for some time. At Nissan board meetings, executives would nod approvingly as Ghosn outlined plans — then block them. Ghosn was uniquely vulnerable to this stalling tactic because he had always ringed himself with yes-men.

“This type of person is surrounded by sycophants 24/7,” Lutz told me. “Nobody can survive that much adulation. They slowly believe that rules are not for them.”

Ghosn’s loyalists, however, just appeared to affirm his directives. Behind his back, they were sharpening knives.

Resentment had built up. An industry source told me that Nissan executives who had flourished under Ghosn were enraged that he was screwing up a sweet deal. He had pushed his luck too far, based on an exaggerated impression of his own capabilities and reputation. He was wrecking the good work that everyone had accomplished at Nissan and for the alliance.

Ghosn took the opposite view. He argued that he’d stepped back from Nissan in 2017 to concentrate on fixing Mitsubishi and tending to the alliance. But the leaders he put in charge took a growing group of companies and $20 billion in cash and sent Nissan into a tailspin.

A 4-decade career comes to an end in a single day — or does it?

Carlos Ghosn

Ghosn’s reign, it turned out, was enforced by the cultish devotion he’d engendered over three decades. It was so fragile that it collapsed, utterly, in one day. By the time he made his daring escape from Japan as 2019 was giving way to 2020, he’d been a guest of the Japanese courts for over a year and was CEO of nothing, chairman of nothing. His fate was entirely uncertain, despite Lebanon’s lack of an extradition treaty with Japan.

Even his professions of innocence were greeted with suspicion. He accused Nissan’s leaders of treachery, of attempting to distract from their own incompetence. In a video released by his lawyers in April 2019, before he was rearrested, he said Nissan has played a “dirty game.”

Nissan stuck to its official statement. “The consequences of Ghosn’s misconduct have been significant,” the company said. “In addition to his prosecution in Japan, the US Securities and Exchange Commission concluded that Ghosn’s conduct, including his schemes to underreport his compensation, was fraudulent.” (Ghosn paid a $1 million fine to the SEC, without admitting guilt, while Nissan paid $15 million to settle an investigation over $140 million in pay that was allegedly arranged for Ghosn but never distributed.)

Ghosn had already lost focus. Sympathy for the Cost Killer had arisen because he was seen as a victim of harsh Japanese justice. He was like a political prisoner, denied due process, cruelly kept from talking to his wife, at times confined to a spartan jail cell, later prohibited from accessing the internet anywhere but at his lawyers’ office, his cellphones confiscated along with his passports.

It was an extraordinary, disturbing approach to take with someone alleged to have committed white-collar crimes. Ghosn hadn’t murdered anyone, after all, nor plotted against the Japanese state. At his worst, he was a vainglorious hustler, not a violent criminal who needed to be behind bars.

But Ghosn’s goal, it seemed, wasn’t to put this system on trial but rather to strike back at Nissan. By then he was swinging at ghosts. Saikawa had stepped down as he, too, became ensnared by the widening investigation of the carmaker’s financial policies. (Ghosn accused Saikawa’s successor, Makoto Uchida, of being a coconspirator in his arrest.)

Ghosn sounded like he sought restoration. But his career was over, his legend in ruins. His best play was to stoke international disgust for his treatment, to become an advocate for reform on the Japanese systems.

I was told not to bet on that. He was going to settle scores. And to a degree, he did, holding a press conference in Beirut (conducted in English, French, and Arabic) that lurched from a detailed defense against the various charges to a portrayal of himself as a victim in Japan to attacks on Nissan executives.

“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Lutz told me, quoting Lord Acton’s dictum.

In Ghosn’s case, we might add, “And when it does, it vanishes forever.”

Or does it?

“Whatever we think now, he was the man who saved Nissan when Nissan needed saving,” Brauer said. “Some consulting, a board seat … then back in a leadership position. I wouldn’t be surprised.”

If Ghosn could prove his innocence, he could stage a comeback even more impressive than his turnaround of the 86-year-old Japanese company.

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NOW WATCH: How can a CEO cut jobs and still be a hero? We asked Carlos Ghosn, who has famously turned around several companies