Two Sides of the Same Coin:
Mindset Lessons from Henry Ford

🕑 5 minutes read | Jun 14 2023 | By Lynn Whitney Turner, TTA Learning Consultant

“Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right!”  This quote from Henry Ford exemplifies the power of one’s mindset.  Anyone familiar with Henry Ford’s story recognized that he embodied this quote as an incredibly determined and self-willed individual.  For him, it was his way or the highway and he was quite adamant about his ways.  This mindset would contribute to his early rise and success and later to his decline.

The Beginning

One of eight children, Henry Ford, was born on the family farm just outside of Detroit, Michigan.  At 16, Henry left the farm to find work in Detroit’s machine shops.  That is where he first came in contact with the internal-combustion engine.  In his spare time, Ford would begin tinkering in his own machine shop with engines and completed his first horseless carriage.  Selling his various creations would help finance his initial business, the Detroit Automobile Company.  With several backers for that business, they abandoned Ford in frustration as they wanted to put a passenger car on the market.  Ford, however, resisted wanting to constantly improve the model, not feeling it was quite ready for customers. Despite burning bridges with some of the wealthiest men in Detroit, Henry was able to incorporate The Ford Motor Company using cash put up by ordinary citizens.

Early Success

While The Ford Motor Company experienced success from its inception, it was not too soon after that the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers threatened to put him out of business because he was not a licensed manufacturer.  The power of this group was in their control of a patent that applied to all gasoline-powered automobiles.  Ford felt this patent was absurd.  To him, all invention was a matter of evolution, but they claimed genesis.  With that, Ford, whose company was very small at the time, was ready to fight this much larger entity worth millions of dollars.  While he lost the original case, Ford appealed and later won, which made him a hero.  Ford would go on to sell 15,500,000 cars in the U.S., almost 1,000,000 more in Canada, and 250,000 in Great Britain during the Model T’s 19 years of existence.  This was a production total amounting to half the auto output of the world.  The Model T was hailed as one of the greatest and most rapid changes in history to the lives of common people allowing them to travel freely around the country.  Ford’s experimentation was also responsible for advancing production technology through the assembly line.  He was able to pay workers more than minimum wage and converted his factory to working a three-shift day.  Ford’s success with making the automobile a basic necessity was a prelude to the mass-production revolution, which changed society.

An Unbending Mindset

As you can see from the story of Henry Ford’s early years, “Can’t” was not in his vocabulary.  An unbending mindset kept him focused on his ideas and vision.  This determination helped to fuel him even against the odds like going up against the wealthiest men in Detroit.  He would not back down and be willing to win at all costs, which kept him fighting for the patent for all gasoline-powered automobiles even though he lost the original case.

While The Ford Motor Company was doing quite well producing eight different models with an output of 100 cars a day, Henry was discontented wanting to produce 1,000 cars per day of only one car, the Model T.  This idea was upsetting to the minority stockholders.  After some court battles, Henry Ford finally bought them out.  This was the largest business enterprise controlled solely by one man.  Ford not only dreamed of increasing capacity but of self-sufficiency.  This need was reinforced by the shortages and price increases caused by World War I.  At the height of its success, his company’s holdings stretched from the iron mines of north Michigan to the jungles of Brazil and operated in 33 countries around the globe.  The Ford Motor Company was built completely out of profits from the Model T.

The same mindset that contributed to Henry Ford’s success would become the same mindset that would lead to his decline.  Hubris had set in and that unbending mindset that originally kept him focused on his ideas and vision now drove out anyone with differing beliefs.  Ford failed to recognize that the market had shifted and now wanted options. While other automobile manufacturers appealed to the market by offering innovative features, Ford’s arrogance maintained his own planetary gear transmission, hydraulic brakes, four-cylinder engine, and one color of paint … black.  When he was finally convinced of the changes in the marketplace, Ford’s plants shut down for five months to retool.  By that time, Ford’s leadership position in the industry had slipped due to his obstinacy.

Similarly, this stubbornness spilled over into his attitude toward his workers.  While he was originally responsible for paying his workers well, it came with a heftier price of overbearing paternalism.  During the Great Depression, Ford was forced to cut pay below that of prevailing industry wages.  In an effort to prevent unionization, Ford would use company police, labor spies, and violence.  Again, he was late coming to terms with the United Automobile Workers (UAW) and almost shut down before being persuaded to sign a union contract.  The Ford Motor Company would go on to be run by Henry’s son, Edsel until his death in 1943.  At which time, Henry would resume presidency until his grandson, Henry Ford II would take over in 1945.

Blind Spots

Henry Ford’s story demonstrates two sides of the same coin related to Mindset.  While determination and unwavering beliefs can keep us motivated and focused on our ideas and vision, they can also get in the way if we are not open to other’s views or understanding the condition and factors for our earlier success. In Jim Collins’ book, How the Mighty Fall, he talked about Five Stages of Decline with Stage 1 being Hubris Born of Success.  He mentions that “Stage 1 kicks in when people become arrogant, regarding success virtually as an entitlement, and they lose sight of the true underlying factors that created success in the first place.  When the rhetoric of success (‘We’re successful because we do these specific things …’) replaces penetrating understanding and insight (‘We’re successful because we understand why we do these specific things and under what conditions they would no longer work’), decline will very likely follow.”

Sometimes, our greatest success can be our greatest weakness blinding us to subtle changes that make our earlier approach ineffective.  Therefore, it is important to ask ourselves what the factors were that contributed to our initial success are those factors still present and if not, what has changed?  Are we open to the insights of others or those of differing views or only to prove ourselves right?  Reflection, curiosity, humility, and agility are key to helping us in becoming better versions of ourselves especially in today’s ever-changing landscape.  Getting too stuck in our ways and becoming defensive about others’ views may hold us back and limit our future success.

In summary, remember … “Minds are like parachutes.  They only function when they are open.”

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