2.8 from 21 votes
- Currently 2.8/5 Stars.
by Eddy Parham, OD Guy
Henry Ford revolutionized the automobile industry and is a legend in American business history. Ford's vision was building a car for the multitudes. One that was high quality, yet every person making a decent salary could afford and care for. The result of Henry's vision was the Model T. And, by 1914, Ford Motor Company was producing nearly 50 percent of all automobiles in the United States.
All of Ford's story is not about positive achievement, and one big reason for this “lack of achievement” is that he didn't empower his people. Henry Ford was so in love with his Model T that he never wanted to change it. Nor did he want anyone else tinkering with it. One day when a group of his designers surprised him by presenting him with the prototype of an improved model, Ford ripped the doors off the hinges and proceeded to destroy the car with his bare hands.
For almost twenty years, the Ford Motor Company offered only one design, the Model T, which Ford had personally developed. It wasn't until 1927 that he finally agreed to offer a new car to the public. The company produced the Model A, but it was incredibly far behind its competitors in technical innovations. Despite its early head start and incredible lead over its competitors, the Ford Motor Company's market share kept shrinking. By 1931, it was down to only 28 percent.
Henry Ford was the antithesis of an empowering leader. He always seemed to undermine his leaders and look over their shoulders. He even created a sociological department within Ford Motor Company to check up on his employees and direct their private lives. And as time went by, he became more eccentric. He once went into his accounting office and tossed the company's books into the street, saying, "Just put all the money we take in in [sic] a big barrel and when a shipment of material comes in reach into the barrel and take out enough money to pay for it."
Perhaps Ford's most peculiar dealings were with his executives, especially his son Edsel. The younger Ford had worked at the company since he was a boy. As Henry became more eccentric, Edsel worked harder to keep the company going. If it weren't for Edsel, the Ford Motor Company probably would have gone out of business in the 1930s. Henry eventually gave Edsel the presidency of the company and publicly said that Ford Motor Company's future looked bright with his leadership. Yet at the same time he undermined him and backed other leaders within the organization. Anytime a promising leader rose up in the company, Henry tore him down. As a result, the company kept losing its best executives. The few who stayed did so because of Edsel. They figured that someday old Henry would die, and Edsel would finally take over and set things right. But that's not what happened. In 1943, Edsel died at age forty-nine.
Edsel's oldest son, the twenty-six-year-old Henry Ford II, quickly left the Navy so that he could return to Dearborn, Michigan and take over the company. At first, he faced opposition from his grandfather's followers. But within two years, he gathered the support of several key people, received the backing of the board of directors and convinced his grandfather to step down so that he could become president in his place.
Young Henry was taking over a company that hadn't made a profit for fifteen years. At that time, it was losing $1 million a day! The young president knew he was in over his head, so he began looking for leaders. Fortunately, the first group actually approached him. It was a team of ten men, headed by Colonel Charles "Tex" Thornton, who had decided they wanted to work together following their service at the War Department during World War II. Their contribution to Ford Motor Company was substantial. In the years to come, the group produced six company vice presidents and two presidents.
The second influx of leadership came with the entrance of Ernie Breech, an experienced General Motors executive and the former president of Bendix Aviation. Young Henry hired him to be Ford's executive vice president. Although Breech held a position second to Henry's, the expectation was that he would take command and turn the company around. And he did. Breech quickly brought in more than 150 outstanding executives from General Motors, and by 1949, Ford Motor Company was on a roll again. In that year, the company sold more than a million Fords, Mercurys, and Lincolns - the best sales since the Model A.
If Henry Ford II had been an empowerer, the Ford Motor Company might have grown enough to eventually overtake General Motors and become the number one car company again. But only secure leaders are able to give power to others. Henry felt threatened. The success of Tex Thornton, Ernie Breech, and Lewis Crusoe, a legendary GM executive that Breech had brought into the company, made Henry worry about his own place at Ford. His position was based not on influence but on his name and his family's control of company stock.
So Henry began pitting one top executive against another. He would invite Thornton to his office and encourage him to criticize fellow executive Crusoe. After a while, Crusoe got fed up with Thornton's insubordination and demanded that Breech fire him, which he did. Then Ford started backing Crusoe, who worked for Breech.
This became a pattern in the leadership of Henry Ford II. Anytime an executive gained power and influence, Henry undercut the person's authority by moving him to a position with less clout, supporting the executive's subordinates, or publicly humiliating him. This continued all the days Henry II was at Ford. As one Ford president, Lee Iacocca, commented after leaving the company, "Henry Ford, as I would learn firsthand, had a nasty habit of getting rid of strong leaders."
Iacocca said that Henry Ford II once described his leadership philosophy to him, years before Iacocca became his target. Ford said, "If a guy works for you, don't let him get too comfortable. Don't let him get cozy or set in his ways. Always do the opposite of what he expects. Keep your people anxious and off-balance."
Now the sad fact of this story is that it is not unique to the Ford Motor Company. Rather than finding leaders, building them up, giving them resources, authority, and responsibility, and then turning them loose to achieve, some leaders undermined their best people because of their own insecurity. But if you want to be successful as a leader, you have to be an empowerer. Theodore Roosevelt said that, "the best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and the self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it."
Only secure leaders are able to give themselves away. Mark Twain once remarked that great things can happen when you don't care who gets the credit. You might even take that a step further and say that great things only happen when you give others the credit. That pretty much sums up empowerment.