23 Jan 2020 18:30 IST

What ‘Ford v Ferrari’ teaches you about leadership

Leaders must highlight achievements of the team members and show the team that performance matters

One of my favourite movies of last year was Ford v Ferrari. It tells the battle that Carrol Shelby and ace driver Ken Miles took on to get a Ford car across the line ahead of a Ferrari at the notoriously difficult Le Mans 24-hour race.

Warning: Some spoilers coming your way. So go watch the movie if you haven’t.

You can check out a review my son did at https://www.toptenmm.com/post/look-out-there-out-there-is-the-perfect-lap-you-see-it. The movie is a phenomenal piece of filmmaking and also has some high-octane leadership lessons.

Leadership is a long race

Le Mans was one of the most gruelling races ever designed. It runs for 24 hours and the cars cover about 5,000 km in that period. No short-burst champions here — this is a test of speed but, more than that, it is a test of stamina, of staying power, of non-stop focus, of trust in your teammates , of superior strategy and split-second decisions, of knowing when to accelerate and when to brake. Ford v Ferrari makes the track a character.

We appreciate what the drivers are up against. It’s very much like business. The same qualities are called for. Speed is great but sometimes it isn’t about speed. It’s about staying in for the long haul. It is about not giving up when you’re close to dropping flat from exhaustion. The long curse also becomes not just a test of competence but of character. At some points in the race, competence seems to be similar and drivers race bonnet to bonnet. It’s then that character comes into play — a moment of impatience, a rash turn, an ego-driven acceleration versus a measured hold, a conquest of impulse, a resilience to absorb a temporary setback. These are what make the difference. Le Mans shows you who you are. So does business.

You hear this when Shelby says: “There’s a point at 7,000 RPM... where everything fades. The machine becomes weightless. Just disappears. And all that’s left is a body moving through space and time. 7,000 RPM. That’s where you meet it. You feel it coming. It creeps up on you, close in your ear. Asks you a question. The only question that matters. Who are you?”

The man behind the wheel

Shelby is clear when he tells Henry Ford II “You want to win Le Mans. You really want to take first place; Miles is the man to do it.” It’s a powerful message. The man in the machine is more important than the machine itself.

Often, in business, there’s a temptation to think of a winning product or a winning technology but products and technology don’t win the day in business — people do. Leaders know that. They focus on getting the right people on board for the challenge ahead. Shelby stayed with his conviction that Miles was the right man for the job. He insulated Miles from the bureaucracy of Ford and it’s politics, and preserved him for the task at which he was best — driving a winning race. As leaders, we must have the courage and the self-security to find the best people and back them for the long haul. We must dedicate time to finding and developing the best people. We must make that a priority.

As Jack Welch said: “This whole game of business revolves around one thing. You build the best team, you win.”

Equals and unequals

During the final race as the Ford team of cars races against Ferrari, the battle is suddenly won as the Ferrari drivers push their cars beyond their limits and flame out. Suddenly, the focus now shifts to harvesting the most PR from an absolutely certain Ford win. Miles, who is way ahead of the rest of the field, looks like coming in the clear winner. But Ford wants to get all three Ford cars to cross the line at the same time for that once in a lifetime photo op.

Miles is given instructions to slow down and allow the others to catch up. Every fibre of his being, revolts against the outrageous request but he finally relents and allows the other two Ford cars to catch up. I’ll stop there to avoid giving away further spoilers. Was Ford right to demand that his best driver slow down so that they could all come in together? I think he was very wrong. As the saying goes: There’s nothing so unequal as the equal treatment of unequals.

I remember when I was in primary school and my teacher asked me to write five articles for the school magazine. I wondered why I was being asked to write five and even suggested that it might be better to give others a chance as well, but my teacher insisted. I obediently submitted the five articles. All five were published in the school magazine. One named me as the author, the other four were listed under my classmates’ names. I was part amused and part annoyed. The teacher had chosen equal representation ahead of real effort.

I remembered that lesson when bosses sometimes asked that increments were handed out uniformly for fear of upsetting a volatile team. I always refused. Unequals should not be treated equally. When we choose equity over differentiating exceptional performance, we end up creating mediocre companies and mediocre teams. Leaders must be able to stand up for performers. Leaders must be able showcase performers, highlight their achievements and show the team that performance matters.

Ford v Ferrari isn’t just a cars movie or a racing movie. It’s a film about leadership. The perfect lap takes more than horsepower — it takes leadership.