Viewpoint -- Michigan's Automotive Leadership -- A Time For "Lobe"-Trotting

June 1, 2006
The answer to creating, building and sustaining innovation lies in leadershipbut not in its traditional sense.

In mining terms, Michigan residents have become the canaries, having seen our "hometown heroes" General Motors and Ford struggle to stay apace with competitors' lean manufacturing models as well as hybrid product lines that match the ever-changing needs of the consumer. But to recapture automotive dominance, we need a long-term vision and leadership strategy that proactively and imaginatively addresses consumers' transportation needs of the 22nd Century. GM and Ford have an opportunity to innovate based on these needs, but may not have all the tools in their "innovation toolkit" yet to succeed.

The answer to creating, building and sustaining innovation lies in leadershipbut not in its traditional sense. Delegating responsibility, measuring results, and cutting the workforce are tactics that produce short-term fixes and signify an antiquated leadership style that will not produce long-term market gains.

Instead the focus must turn to a more right-brained leadership strategy that unlocks the potential energy in the workforce and transforms the negative image many Americans have about U.S. automotive manufacturing. Here are five approaches for enabling GM and Ford's leaders to tackle these two critical challenges.

1. Think two generations ahead. First, GM and Ford should redefine themselves as the companies of the 22nd Century, the only American companies with the legacy, reach and talent to confront the beginning of the end of oil dependency. The companies have stakes in virtually every community in this nation and can help America sustain its lifestyle by designing the best private and public mass transportation in the world. Using knowledge from their emerging products, like Ford's Focus FCV and GM's Autonomy, they can create a vision for the future of American transportation and capture its buyers.

2. Establish the freedom to innovate. To unlock potential energy in their workforce, GM and Ford leaders should take the lead and define a strategy to actively stimulate creativity. For example, partnering with creative leaders, like Steve Jobs, and inviting him to sit on the Board of Directors could become the catalyst so greatly needed to create a culture of design. GM and Ford could lead this evolution and help transform the American economy from service-centric to design-centric.

Equally important is the need for the companies' leaders to re-energize their workforce by tapping into employees' intuitive side and ritualizing "ingenuity time" on the job.

3. Start all problem-solving by taking responsibility. The company executives should communicate to their employees, dealers and suppliers that they are personally committed to fighting for long-term success. In a fast-changing, global economy, effective leaders cannot take anything for granted. They must assume personal responsibility by asking what their role is in creating the problem, tackle their own fears of failure and immediately correct ineffective behaviors.

4. Identify the unseen forces in the market. Great business leaders understand the most powerful forces in the marketplace reside in the collective unconscious. In the last ten years, GM and Ford have lost their connection with the American psyche. One example is found in FORTUNE Magazine's March 6th edition on America's Most Admired Companies. In its ranking of 303 companies, Toyota placed ninth overall -- the first time a non-U.S. entity made the top 10 -- while GM and Ford did not qualify.

5. Lead with your strengths. Forty years ago, GM and Ford offered the product stairway to the American dream. Consumers believed that what was good for the companies was good for America, a belief so powerful that we didn't care that their cars seemed to be designed for planned obsolescence. Today, consumers' beliefs are on an individual level and Toyota's success is due in part to connecting with these buying decisions and has created a suite of products to cater to each dream.

When confronted with a multitude of market analyses, facts and management models, business leaders often rely on a personal gut check to guide their ultimate decision-making. General Motors and Ford must now tap every bit of hidden talent and energy to regain their market share. No spreadsheet or Wall Street prophecy will show the necessity for engaging every employee, supplier, board member and customer. But in order to survive, the companies must become innovators by defining how they will meet the needs of future generations.

Charles Fleetham is the author of The Search for Unrational Leadership: Using Rational & Irrational Methods to Change Your Life and the founder and president of management consulting firm Detroit-based management consulting firm Project Innovations, Inc. (

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