Leadership in a Complex World: Two Divergent Approaches

2013 by Garza

Leadership coach Scott Eblin recently posted on his blog a video of a terrific interview with Ford Motor Company Executive Chairman, Bill Ford. Bill Ford’s mentor, mindfulness guru Jack Kornfield, conducted the interview during the Wisdom 2.0 Conference held in San Francisco in February. If you’re interested in good leadership, check out Scott’s March 4, 2013 blog and enjoy Bill and Jack’s 40-minute conversation.

Bill Ford might have won the gene pool, but he’s no figurehead leader. He has shown courage on several fronts, including as a proponent of strategies to reduce America’s dependence on fossil fuels. I’ll bet that lost him some friends in the auto industry. He’s also highly regarded for having led his company through the Great Recession without seeking the protection of the bankruptcy courts as several competitors did. The interview reveals much about the man, as Jack Kornfield steers the conversation to the challenges Bill Ford has faced throughout his career at Ford Motor Company and the leadership practices he has relied on to meet these challenges.

One of the things that interested me most about the interview was hearing Bill Ford talk about what drove him to take a pro-environment stance as head of a company heavily dependent on fossil fuels. He said he needed to preserve his own humanity. Acknowledging he considered leaving the company and the industry altogether, he also realized that if he didn’t take a stand, eventually Ford Motor Company, like so many companies in the tobacco industry, would struggle to attract the best and the brightest and would no longer be a place where generation after generation of people were proud to have earned a living. You can tell Bill Ford has a strong sense of personal responsibility for the company that bears his name – one that includes, and transcends, shareholder value. If you are familiar with adult stage development or are a reader of Bill Joiner and Stephen Joseph’s Leadership Agility, you’ll appreciate how Bill Ford’s values-based lens and large-context thinking signal his post-conventional (or post-heroic) leadership style.

As I watched the video, I was struck by the contrast between Bill Ford and what has been going on in the gun industry recently. You might recall that a few days after the Newtown, CT shootings, the CEO of Cerberus Capital, whose father lived in Newtown, announced Cerberus intended to sell its firearms subsidiary, Freedom Group, the leading manufacturer of firearms in the U.S. It occurred to me then that Cerberus and its CEO were missing a beautiful opportunity to make a lasting contribution to society that far exceeds the return on investment a sale of the subsidiary might preserve. I wondered what they might have accomplished if instead of fleeing their industry (something Bill Ford chose not to do), Cerberus and its CEO were to enlist Cerberus’ stakeholders, including its institutional investors and other members of the firearms industry, in a coordinated effort to change the gun control discussion in our country. The throw weight of their unified voice in support of a more rational approach to gun ownership in this country would surpass the capabilities of traditional advocates of reason by several orders of magnitude.

I realize doing this would be hard and complicated. Issues of fiduciary duty owed to Cerberus’ stakeholders, not to mention the difficulty of confronting deeply-held beliefs and ingrained behaviors among a sizable segment of our country, would be daunting to overcome. But I’d love to see the impact bold action could have had on the debate – and on the legacies of Cerberus, its CEO, its institutional investors and its other stakeholders.

Joiner and Josephs write about why post-conventional leadership is necessary in our complex world. Bill Ford’s leadership of the auto industry, on the one hand, and Cerberus’ response to Newtown, on the other, illustrates this proposition in two very different ways.

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