Thirty years ago, as winter descended on the Arctic coast of East Greenland, I faced my toughest leadership decision: go forward or go home. I was leading Australia’s first Arctic expedition, a $2.5 million project that had travelled halfway around the globe and survived violent North Atlantic storms to arrive two months late and miss the short summer season. Winter storms and darkness would soon freeze the sea solid. But for now, it was still sunny. What to do?
Leaders make decisions. But before they do, leaders define reality. The reality was we had an open sea, so we still had an expedition. My decision was to launch our sea kayaks and head south for 1,000km, knowing we’d either safely reach Qaqortoq or be trapped in the frozen wilderness. The risks weren’t just to the lives of my nine-man kayak and yacht crews, but to the reputations of our patron, the Prince of Wales, the Australian Prime Minister, famous advisors and a host of sponsors. And then there was the risk to our film, slated for international release.
Making tough decisions to drive progress, a leader has no idea if the decision is right or will work. Only time will tell. And that is the key leadership dimension that business schools and books avoid confronting. Dealing with the unknown is the crucial difference between leadership and management, and for that leaders require courage, patience and humility. Courage to make the decision, patience to let it work and humility to accept whichever way it turns out. And, lastly, accepting that, unlike management, leadership is inherently lonely.
My expedition was purely a leadership situation. There was nothing to manage. There could be no plan or strategy for managing in the Arctic wilderness. I had to just deal with each new surprise – and there were a lot of those. During the project’s two-year run, everything that could possibly go wrong did so, from continual financial crises, equipment failure, conflict among personnel, and the violence of a savage environment. In other words, it mirrored the leadership challenges faced today by most businesses. In fact, it’s been like that for the last 240,000 years.
Despite mankind’s attempts to forecast the future and control the present, a look at history reveals that it’s just a litany of the unexpected. Or, as Alan Bennett’s head prefect says in ‘The History Boys’, “It’s just one f—–g thing after another”. This is the uncomfortable reality of leadership, as the history of the auto industry confirms. And this reality will be its future.
The greatest industrial leader of all time and with a fortune of $144 billion, the wealthiest self-made man ever was Henry Ford.
Beyond the mesmerising detail of his engineering brilliance, his exceptional persistence and a humanitarian compassion that remains unrivalled, what we see is the perfect definition of industrial leadership. It puts most of today’s business leaders to shame.
Ford, who also incidentally helped create Cadillac and Dodge, provides us with a leadership model that’s worth examining for several reasons. First and foremost, he had exceptional courage. Starting with no personal assets, he created a massive capital-intensive business the likes of which had never been seen anywhere before. Ford had the courage to create something from nothing and to dream bigger than anyone.
Secondly, he was driven by a higher purpose. Ford was not in the auto business just to make cars; his real purpose was to help make a modern nation. By creating a mobile workforce he helped enable America’s economic growth and social prosperity. He believed that by doing his thing he could help amplify America’s international power. His higher purpose shaped all his big decisions. Ford’s legacy was a global industry that perpetuated his higher purpose.
Thirdly, his generosity was legendary. Or at least, that’s how it looked at the time. In reality, Ford was a humanitarian. When he shocked American industry in 1914 by introducing the $5 day rate, more than doubling the normal rate, his aim was to improve the economy. In 1926 he also introduced the 40-hour week with the purpose of improving society. It worked. Ford lived to see how other industries benefited from his generosity.
Henry Ford helped shape the working and social environment which, for 100 years, did not change. But now the tech revolution is changing everything. Setting aside the tech itself, the greatest change we are beginning to see is the role of leadership in a millennial world. Old and discredited ideas of leadership have no place in the new world.
Within the slow-moving avalanche of leadership theory that has engulfed business thinking, we find 40 theories of leadership, 1,500 definitions of leadership and over 80 million books on leadership, nearly all of it generated by academics and employees. And despite all this, according to Professor Barbara Kellerman, founder of the Harvard-Kennedy School for Public Leadership, leaders worldwide have never been held in such low repute.
American MBA schools release 140,000 graduates into the wild each year, most with a delusion that their classroom time amounts to leadership qualifications. Forbes leadership expert, Drew Hansen, reminds us that leadership is developed in the crucible of life, not in a classroom.
Leadership has become the new porn and it seems that everyone wants to be a star. But when faced with the reality of leadership, most people buckle under the weight – for one very important reason. Uncertainty. No one likes uncertainty. Not employees and not shareholders. And yet uncertainty is the only reality there is. So being comfortable with uncertainty and helping others overcome their fear of it is, paradoxically, the hallmark of the great leader.
In some ways we appear to inhabit a matrix-like delusional world. We crave certainty and try to control stability, yet at every hour of every day we are just responding to the unexpected.
Don’t believe me? Just ask the first person in an ambulance if that was their plan. Or ask Samsung if exploding batteries was theirs. Who expected Donald Trump to win, Nico Rosberg to suddenly retire or Tiger Woods to make a sizzling comeback? Who predicted the massive divestment in fossil fuels and the rapid emergence of electric cars? And now, driverless cars?
For the global auto industry to remain buoyant in today’s stormy seas it will require exceptional modern-style leadership. Not the transactional leadership that supported Genghis Khan’s expansion or America’s globalisation, but the transformational leadership that for almost a quarter of a million years enabled us to survive ice ages, adapt to intercontinental migration, and develop the arts and sciences that underpin today’s cultural diversity. It’s no longer a top-down world, but a tech-rendered flat world and we’re all in it together. That’s the leadership challenge.
Today, the auto industry stands where I stood 30 years ago, on the cusp of a new and potentially dangerous journey into the unknown. I know this place and it’s very challenging. Yes, we all have hopes, dreams and plans that will have to survive unexpected storms and big disappointments. The future can only reliably promise leaders one thing: ongoing upheaval that will call on every strength and quality they never realised they possessed.
For the auto industry to adapt, thrive and succeed, it will need to create a new generation of exceptional transformational leaders. Where will they be found, how will they be recognised and what happens if we don’t have the courage to look for them? Those are today’s big questions.
Earl De Blonville
Consultant and Leadership Coach
Earl de Blonville is a Leadership Consultant and Leadership Coach. A leader of scientific and adventure expeditions, his documentary film was released internationally and his latest leadership book SAVAGE COAST received rave reviews. Earl’s doctoral research developed the first integrated approach to leadership development and his courses in Transformational Leadership are now available.