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Bold Leader Spotlight: Henry Ford, Captain of Industry

Henry Ford caricature

Bold Business has long highlighted the bold leaders making a significant impact on the world today. But sometimes the lessons of the past–and the leaders who helped shape our world–are worthy of recognition, too. Last week, we profiled finance pioneer JP Morgan. This week the Bold Leader Spotlight lands on Henry Ford. After all, despite all his contributions to the world of automobiles and manufacturing, Henry Ford’s leadership style is perhaps more enduring.

Imagine if the car company you owned today accounted for more than half the automobiles in the world. That was the position Ford found himself in 1918, ten years after introducing the Model T. But remarkably, it wasn’t because Henry Ford was the first to market. Instead, his success can from his many bold leadership qualities that influenced an entire generation and others to follow.

Perhaps best known for his innovations, Ford was much more than simply an inventor. He demonstrated leadership qualities that ranged from visionary to a champion for equality and social justice.  And at the same time, his modest upbringing and life perspective further enhanced his already powerful leadership qualities, making his bold achievements all the more impressive. As per Ed Kopko’s upcoming book–Project Bold Life: The Proven Formula for Taking on Challenges and Achieving Happiness and Success–“bold achievements are those that challenge us, make us better people, and allow us to reach our greatest and boldest potential in life.” Ford certainly made himself, and the world, better! For these reasons, Ford remains a bold leader icon even today.

Bold leader Henry Ford, a fount of wisdom
As bold leaders go, few have shaped the business world like Henry Ford.

Henry Ford’s Leadership Style: Empathy, Diversity and Inclusion

When it came to being a people person, Ford was a genius. Having an innate sense of empathy and appreciation of others’ value, Ford understood common struggles and needs. At the same time, he understood human motivation and loyalty. While his competitors paid their factory workers a wage barely over $2/hour, Ford boosted wages to $5/hour. He also reduced work shift times from nine hours to eight hours. Not only did this gesture show his appreciation of his employees, but it also gained worker dedication for years to come.

While one might think worker motivation drove Ford’s policies awarding a higher wage, that was not necessarily the case. Ford’s leadership style extended well beyond this. He was a revolutionary when it came to diversity and inclusion, routinely hiring women, minorities, and disabled individuals. In fact, Ford employed over 900 people with disabilities and had over 62 nationalities represented in his workforce. He also made sure his healthcare benefits were available to all, including LGBT individuals. At the heart of the matter, acceptance of others and emotional intelligence were some of his most powerful leadership qualities.

Henry Ford didn't invent the car, but he made it attainable.
Henry Ford’s leadership style included many traits found in bold leaders today.

Leadership that Embraced Constant Change

Ford worked for Edison Illumination Company as a chief engineer in his youth and was on-call 24 hours a day. But that didn’t stop him from pursuing his passion. Recently married and working long hours,  Ford still found time to invent the Quadricycle, the first gas-powered horseless carriage. Equipped with a vision and a passion, Ford continuously invested in change to realize his dreams. Ford’s leadership style drove his ability to be comfortable with innovation and change. And it would also lead to one of the most radical developments of his era.

After releasing the Model T in 1908, the $260 automobile became immediately popular. Demand exceeded supply, and Ford needed to figure out how to change his manufacturing to accommodate this demand. Ford’s implementation of the assembly line provided this change, reducing production times from four hours to 93 minutes. Not only did this further the Ford Motor Company’s success, but it also revolutionized manufacturing globally. His leadership qualities that invited change and innovation remain traits instilled in the company today.

Henry Ford, the boldest of leaders
Empathy played a big role in Ford’s leadership style.

Leadership with Humility

Despite becoming a wealthy mogul and household name, Ford remained humble. Ford’s leadership style was likely ingrained in him as a child while working at his family’s farm. A hard work ethic, commitment, compassion for others, and a desire to improve society were among these leadership qualities. Known for being modest in his attire as well as personal interactions, Ford demonstrated true humility as a leader.

Humility can be appreciated in different ways when it comes to leadership qualities. For Ford, having an ability to learn from his mistakes reflects this leadership trait. The lack of design options among car models was a criticism of buyers that eventually allowed Ford’s competitors to excel. Likewise, Ford faced criticisms with employee unions and with opponents of his political views. But demonstrating his humble nature and a capacity to learn from failure, Ford shifted his views and beliefs. Overcoming adversity is certainly not easy, which is why these leadership qualities are among some of the most impressive.

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Henry Ford – Bold Leadership in an Era of Dynamic Change

By all accounts, Ford was a visionary leader ahead of his time. For one, he enabled nearly everyone to have the ability to afford an automobile. But he also introduced technologies and innovations that changed the world. The profound effects of these leadership qualities had lasting impacts on the country. Specifically, his bold leadership can be attributed to the need for our nation’s interstate system. Likewise, many link his leadership qualities and innovations to the rise of the middle class.

Among all the leadership qualities that Ford demonstrated, perhaps his most notable was the ability to connect with others. Though not perfect, Ford leveraged his leadership qualities to be inclusive and to promote collaboration. And he learned from his mistakes when things didn’t go as planned. These leadership qualities made others respect him and want to follow his lead. And it remains a reason that Ford Motor Company continues to be a leader in the automotive market today. Bold leadership leaves bold legacies, and Ford highlights this simple fact.

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