5 Powerful Entrepreneurship Lessons From Henry Ford

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Henry Ford, the founder of the American automaker Ford Motor Company, is widely recognized not only for his accomplishments, but for his way of thinking and leading. His legacy is filled with terrific quotes and memories which collectively point toward a powerful philosophy of entrepreneurship. I can think of few other figures to turn to for inspiration as I navigate the entrepreneurial landscape each and every day. With this in mind, let’s take a look at five entrepreneurship lessons from Henry Ford.

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1)     Be so good at what you do that people think you invented it.

Henry Ford often gets credited as the man who invented automobiles. This was not remotely true, but Ford was indeed so passionate about automobiles, and so instrumental to their presence in American and world culture, that he regularly gets credit for it.

I’m not suggesting that anyone steal credit from others; that would be unethical. But what I am suggesting is that you go at your work with such a strong spirit of passion and excellence that the kind of work you do becomes an inextricable part of the market you serve. Just like pop culture sometimes credit Al Gore with inventing the Internet (even though he only allowed for its development in a legal sense), or crown filmmaker Stanley Kubrick as the inventor of computerized motion-picture special effects for his work on “2001: A Space Odyssey” (even though in truth he used no computers on that film; he simply laid the groundwork for effects that would later become computerized), people will come to perceive and define you as a pioneer in your work if you attend to that work with major presence and power.

This is not about honing your image. It’s about liberating your highest truth. Do what you love, what ignites your most fervent and excited emotions. When you do so, you’ll find that your love is contagious, and the better you get at what you do, the more people will love that thing, as well.

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Eventually, you’ll become more than the person who bakes the cake. You’ll become the person who MADE the cake in the first place.

2)     Failures are opportunities.

Ford failed many times before he finally succeeded. Such a trajectory is incredibly common among entrepreneurs. Human beings tend to downplay their failures, but the truth is that no person is immune to failure, which is a good thing, since failures are merely opportunities disguised as negative events.

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As Ford once said, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” In other words, we must take our failures as our teachers.

Naturally, no one likes the experience of failure. It’s very disruptive to our sense of optimism and momentum when our plans do not work out. However, we can only benefit from changing the way we tend to think about failure.

When failures occur, try not to focus on the emotional disappointment, and try instead to focus on the intellectual gain. Within every failure is valuable information: What did we do wrong? How might we approach things differently next time?

Failures are simply a form of feedback we receive in the course of the life experience. They educate us on what doesn’t work for us. If we fail to listen, and keep repeating ourselves, then we truly are doomed to failure. But if we tune in close, and cultivate a habit of revising our trajectories when failure strikes, we stand a chance at truly succeeding in the end.

3)     Be as strong behind the scenes as you are anywhere else.

The last thing an entrepreneur wants to do is slip into the trap of looking impressive to others while not really having a substantive game behind closed doors. We’ve all run into such people. We label them as being “all talk”, and eventually tend not to take them very seriously.

Such people stand no chance at creating valuable products and/or services, much less rising high in the ranks of entrepreneurs. As Henry Ford said, “Quality means doing it right when no one is looking.”

In other words, don’t exist to impress. Engage with the process. Attend to the details. Exercise impeccable judgment, down to the tiniest aspect of whatever it is that you’re involved in. For even if people don’t see it, they will feel it.

And in the end, per Ford’s wisdom, it doesn’t matter what people think. It only matters how well they are served.

4)     Don’t be a showoff.

There’s a great story about Ford that involves his choice of clothing.

Ford was known to be outwardly modest, and to dress in informal clothes. One day his secretary asked him why he didn’t dress up more. Ford scoffed at such a notion, explaining to her that everyone already knew he was Henry Ford, so he wasn’t required to underline that fact.

Later on, during a world tour, Ford found himself in foreign lands, where no one could recognize him on sight. As such, his secretary again suggested less modest clothing. His answer? He didn’t want to be bothered dressing up for people who didn’t even know that he was Henry Ford to begin with.

In other words, he wasn’t going to play himself up for anyone, whether they knew who he was or not. If they already knew him, he wasn’t going to add any hype to the equation. If they didn’t know him, he wasn’t about to shine a spotlight on himself. He was simply going to show up as himself.

Of course, by this time, Ford was already a celebrity wealthy man who did not feel the pressures of unattained success. Some might consider his indifference to personal image as an eccentricity resulting from his worldwide prestige. Yet the underlying convictions informing his choice of attire are a wonderful advice for all entrepreneurs. It goes hand-in-hand with “doing it right when no one is looking.” Don’t be a walking advertisement for yourself while having nothing or little to offer. Exist in service to your customers and clients for they are the ones that truly matter, and the ones that pay the bills.

5)     Don’t only be in the business of making money.

“A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business,” said Mr. Ford.

So many businesses are essentially cash grabs. They prey on people’s weaker impulses, or worse, their outright, urgent needs. Those who run these businesses may enjoy many luxuries but they will always live in shame. They may not care, the question is, would you?

It’s far better to be a provider of real value. Money accrues to value, too. There seems to be a myth out there that money is the province of the greedy and the unethical. Oftentimes, the opposite is true: So many entrepreneurs achieve financial success because they’re playing some essential role in people’s lives. As such, money isn’t the object of the game; it’s merely a natural aspect of each transaction.

People do not remember Henry Ford merely as a guy who made lots of money. People remember him, first and foremost, as the person who made the assembly line famous, and made and sold great cars in the process.

Ending note:

It is important to point out that Henry Ford’s legacy was stained by his anti-Semitic views, which he mass distributed through The Dearborn Independent, a Detroit weekly newspaper he bought in 1918. His adamant anti-Semitic discourse gained so much attention that even Adolf Hitler mentioned Ford as an “inspiration” to a Detroit News reporter in 1931. This is a very dark episode in Henry Ford’s life, which caused him much trouble in the U.S. After being confronted in several ways by different Jewish organizations in America, including lawsuits and boycotts, Henry Ford apologized for his anti-Semitic remarks and recanted his views in a public letter. Interestingly, all of this happened before World War II even started.

Robert Lacey wrote in Ford: The Men and the Machines that a close associate of Ford reported that when he was shown footage of the Nazi concentration camps, he “was confronted with the atrocities which finally and unanswerably laid bare the bestiality of the prejudice to which he contributed, he collapsed with a stroke – his last and most serious.”

Despite Ford’s major misconceptions and religious prejudice, for which he later apologized and in all likelihood repented, his legacy as an entrepreneur is unbreakable. Ford’s pursuit of vertical integration laid down the blueprint for other manufacturers around the world. His River Rouge Plant, the world’s largest industrial complex at the time, became so vertically integrated that it could produce its own steel. He believed that international trade and cooperation led to world peace, and he used the assembly-line process and production of the Model T to prove it.

This post was originally published on Forbes.com.


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