After Chrysler hired Nardelli, he famously cut his salary to $1 a year. Cerberus Capital, which is Chrysler's majority owner, told me Friday that Nardelli was not paid any other compensation while running the automaker.

The salary cut was an important sign to the public, especially with all of the attention paid to the health of the U.S. automakers and the backlash against excessive executive compensation. But Nardelli was billed to be the man who would turn Chrysler around, and he failed to do it.

"It's always a head-scratcher when you see someone with a high profile that has truly been unsuccessful in turning things around get another opportunity," said Art Hogan, chief market analyst with Jefferies.

Of course, Chrysler was damaged goods before Nardelli arrived. Still, it's hard to hear Nardelli say that, after bankruptcy, it is now the "appropriate time to let others take the lead in the transformation of Chrysler with Fiat." Apparently, he was good enough to drive the automaker into bankruptcy, but he can't tow it out.

Alan Mulally, Ford's ( F) current CEO, makes Nardelli's performance look even worse. After enjoying success at Boeing ( BA), Mulally took the reins at Ford at a time when market share was slipping and both losses and debt were mounting. While Nardelli enjoyed the shelter of working for a privately owned automaker, Mulally cut costs and revived the Taurus brand while facing scrutiny from shareholders.

Now, Ford is essentially the strongest U.S. automaker. Even General Motors ( GM) was in a worse predicament than Chrysler, and it still hasn't had to seek court protection.

Celebrity Status

For market analysts, Nardelli's consecutive losing turns could signal the end of an era where CEOs spend more time in front of a camera than behind closed doors.

"When you look at CEOs, we've gotten to the point where they've become stars," Hinsdale's Nolte said. "If you go back 30 years and try to name a corporate CEO, you wouldn't have had a clue. They did a lot of other things behind the scenes that weren't noteworthy or pressworthy. They've become more PR people now, I think, than true managers."

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