He may have been a manipulative boss, a virulent anti-Semite, and a singularly bad father, but Henry Ford sure was persistent.
Those are just a few of my takeaways from, “The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century,” by Steven Watts, a colossal biography on the first mass-producer of affordable automobiles for the average American. Ford’s work changed the world we live in, but it didn’t come quickly or easily.
The hint of this is demonstrated by the name of his famous car — the Model T. Now, unlike some startup companies whose first check number is 1000 to give them the appearance of longevity, Ford started with the Model A, and worked his way down the alphabet. Not all the models made it into production, which is why some of them are unfamiliar to the public, but down the progression he went. The company had success with some earlier designs, such as the Model N, but hit the motherload when the T met the market.
When we read about things like this, when we read history in general, we wrongly have a sense that what happened was inevitable, and so we don’t attribute to an individual like Ford the staying power and persistence that made his success possible. What I mean to say is that when he was focused on the Model M, he didn’t know the next one would do well; and when on S, he had no reason to believe that T would change the world. All he knew was that he was going to keep trying and trying and trying until he found success. And it is this type of persistence that is so often displayed by those who have achieved great things.
After the Model T had dominated the market (with production reaching almost 2 million a year at its peak) for almost two decades, sales started to fall off, as innovation among the competition made the Model T start to feel stale and obsolete. Despise his willingness to adapt at the start of his career, Ford, who’d been riding high for so long, seemed unable to part with the Model that had made him both famous and rich. Despite the pleadings of his son Edsel — who was nominally running the company — and other top executives, he could not part with the past and, in so doing, put the company behind the 8-ball with no time to spare.
Ford seemed to feel that what had gotten him here, would get him there, and I believe he was deeply fearful of revealing himself to be a one-hit wonder. Luckily for the company, Ford finally got on board with developing a new model and threw himself into the project. In another one of his failings, he dishonestly took credit as being the impetus behind it as well.
It is this balance, this tension between persistence and change that often determine greatness or failure. As I have written before, the only problem is no one tells you when you’re on the wrong track or when you just need to keep at it a little longer. Nobody tells you when you’re three feet from gold versus mining to nowhere. It is the leader who must monitor the situation and get a sense for when enough is enough, or when to stick at it a little longer. That’s why you get paid the big bucks.
From Ford’s story, we can also see that leaders can be sustained by their reports. If Edsel Ford and other top managers had not made the thankless investment of time and money to convince their recalcitrant and irascible leader that a new car was essential, the whole company might have gone down with Ford stubbornly clinging to his beloved Model T. Instead, they pushed and pushed and saved the company they were so much a part of.
In your work, in so many ways, you must constantly monitor how things are going to see if and when you need to change course. You need to watch the results of your team’s efforts and see if they are bearing fruit. You need to know when it’s time to stay the course, or move on down the alphabet. We at can, at least, take that from the Ford story, while leaving much else behind.