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Recently, while re-watching “Ford v Ferrari,” I was captivated by a scene that illustrates an ongoing challenge in leadership. After a disappointing performance at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Henry Ford II confronts Carroll Shelby (an automotive designer, racing driver, and entrepreneur best known for creating the Shelby Cobra and helping to redesign the Ford Mustang), questioning his role and threatening to fire him. In this critical moment, Shelby passionately challenges Ford’s bureaucratic management style and makes the case for self-management in leadership.

He highlights how layers of bureaucracy and management by committee are stifling innovation and performance. Shelby makes a compelling case for a leaner approach, urging Ford to trust his vision and grant him the autonomy to make crucial decisions, including the choice of Ken Miles as the race car driver—despite Miles not being the typical “company man.”

I love this scene and how it underscores the need for trust and self-management in leadership, demonstrating how even the most structured environments can benefit from more organic, adaptable qualities.

Understanding Self-Management in Leadership

Self-management in leadership is about empowering leaders and teams to make decisions autonomously, free from cumbersome hierarchical constraints. This approach not only fosters innovation but also accelerates decision-making processes. In the context of Shelby’s plea to Ford, it meant cutting through the red tape that bogged down their operations and trusting someone who knew the ins and outs of racing—Ken Miles.

“If you’ve got a problem with your car, you don’t take it to a committee meeting, you give it to the mechanic.” -Ford v Ferrari

While self-management emphasizes autonomy and minimal hierarchical structures, akin to natural ecosystems, it does not imply a lack of order. Like ecosystems, where diverse elements work harmoniously without central control, self-managed teams thrive under guiding principles that ensure alignment with the organization’s goals, balancing freedom with coherence.

These frameworks empower individuals to make decisions that align with the organization’s overall vision and strategy, ensuring that autonomy does not lead to chaos but to coordinated efforts and innovation.

While it may seem paradoxical to use Ford Motor Company and car racing—domains deeply rooted in mechanical precision—as metaphors, they exemplify the necessity of injecting organic, adaptable qualities into traditionally rigid systems. This paradox highlights how even the most structured environments can benefit from the principles of self-management, mirroring the adaptability and resilience found in natural ecosystems.

Implementing Self-Management in Leadership

The heated exchange between Shelby and Ford underscores a crucial lesson for today’s leaders: embracing self-management in leadership can lead to more dynamic and successful outcomes. By reducing bureaucratic overhead and empowering individuals like Shelby and Miles, organizations can create an environment where unique talents and innovative thinking thrive.

To effectively implement self-management in leadership, organizations can:

  1. Set clear principles and goals: This ensures that while decision-making is decentralized, all actions align with the organization’s overall vision.
  2. Foster a culture of trust and accountability: Leaders must trust their teams’ capabilities and encourage accountability for outcomes.
  3. Provide support and resources: Empowering leaders and teams means providing them with the necessary tools and support to succeed.

These three items seem simple though they are some of the biggest issues organizations face in improving culture, strategic advantage, and helping people flourish.

In my blog, Humanizing the Workplace: The Teal Organizational Shift, I discuss how Frederic Laloux highlights in his book that self-management is built on a foundation of interlocking structures and practices. This framework ensures that decision-making authority and power naturally flow to those with the requisite expertise, interest, or willingness to address a situation. By adapting processes to empower individuals in decision-making and communication, they can better handle complexity, keeping the flow of work and innovation vibrant across the organization.

“Every time we propose a new idea, it goes up to a committee, and by the time it comes back down, it’s so compromised, it’s beat to hell.” – Ford v Ferrari

It’s important to recognize the seeming paradox in self-management in leadership. On one hand, it calls for decentralization and autonomy, reminiscent of natural, organic systems. On the other, it requires a framework and guiding principles that provide structure—much like the skeletal systems that support the bodies of living organisms. This blend of structure and flexibility is crucial for nurturing an adaptive and resilient organization.

From Movie to Modern Workplace

The confrontation between Shelby and Ford in “Ford v Ferrari” is a powerful metaphor for the transformative impact of self-management in leadership. After embracing Shelby’s approach, the team went on to achieve remarkable success, winning several Le Mans titles (and continued to creatively face bureaucratic challenges of the time).  Just like in racing, where precision and adaptability are critical, in business, empowering leaders and teams can lead to significant cultural and strategic advantages.