Leading under pressure can be stressful for even the most seasoned leader. When outcomes are uncertain, deadlines are tight, and the stakes are high, leaders must focus on quickly analyzing information and making the best decisions possible. Often, high-pressure situations result in innovation as leaders and their teams must adopt new ways of thinking and creative ways of accomplishing their goals.
In the mid-1960s, Ford Motor Company wanted to build a race car. And not just any race car, but one that would beat Ferrari at Le Mans, one of the most prestigious endurance races in the world.
Ford v Ferrari offers powerful lessons on leading under pressure. Read on for four leadership takeaways that today’s business leaders can use to guide their teams through stressful situations.
Ford: Focused on a new goal
Ford was wildly successful at churning out reliable family cars via its moving assembly lines, but the company wasn’t exactly known for its flashy, bespoke racing vehicles. However, CEO Henry Ford II was determined to innovate — and to show Ferrari who was boss, after Ford’s unsuccessful attempt to buy the Italian luxury car manufacturer in 1963.
Ford v Ferrari tells the story of the two men whom Henry Ford II entrusted with building a race car that would beat Ferrari at the 1966 Le Mans race. Ford recruits Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a former racer and Le Mans winner. Shelby then enlists the help of Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a top British racer. Shelby and Miles face incredible challenges that include designing the car and engine, as well as navigating Ford Motor Company’s complicated, hierarchical corporate structure.
On top of that, they are under immense time pressure – they have just 90 days to build this game-changing vehicle.
The film depicts the journey of these two men creating a car that will revolutionize Ford Motor Company and the racing world. As the pressure increases, they abandon conventional methods and come up with brilliantly creative solutions on the fly. They are under extreme pressure, and that pressure forces them to innovate. Ultimately, they succeed: their Ford GT40 beats Ferrari at Le Mans in 1966.
Lesson 1: Clearly define roles
A high-pressure situation may require an “all hands on deck” approach. However, even in stressful, uncertain times, it’s crucial for each person on the team to have a clearly defined role.
The relationship between Shelby and Miles in Ford v Ferrari illustrates this perfectly. The two partners have very different strengths and approaches to problems. Shelby is level-headed and understands how to navigate the complex corporate layers of the Ford Motor Company. Miles is more of a maverick who is at his best when he’s out on the track, either racing or coming up with ingenious design ideas.
Their partnership is successful because each man is allowed to ‘stay in his lane’ and focus on what he does best. Miles lets Shelby handle the corporate negotiations. Shelby lets Miles take the lead when it comes to skill and creativity on the track. They each play a distinct role in their partnership which makes them more effective as a team.
Lesson 2: Flatten the organizational structure
To remain nimble during a stressful time, organizations need a streamlined structure that allows for efficient decision-making.
In Ford v Ferrari, innovation at the Ford Motor Company is weighed down with layers of bureaucracy. The red file folder that passes from department to department symbolizes the inefficient communication and decision-making systems within the organization.
Shelby and Miles are also constantly slowed down by middle managers interfering with their work. Frustrated by the multiple layers of management, Shelby eventually insists on reporting directly to Henry Ford II. “You can’t win a race by committee,” Shelby tells Ford. “You need one man in charge.”
Lesson 3: Get (and stay) in the trenches
Effective leaders show solidarity with their teams when times get tough.
In the movie, Henry Ford II presents a negative example of leading under pressure. During the Le Mans race – the fateful culmination of everything his team has been working toward – Ford leaves in a helicopter to eat at a gourmet restaurant.
His showy departure reveals that he sees himself as more important than his team. Members of the Ford crew, who have been working and sweating in the pit for hours, definitely notice his absence, and they resent his elitism. A member of the Ferrari team also makes a snide joke about Ford’s lack of leadership. Ford should have stayed in the stands to cheer on his team during the all-important race. (And if he needed to leave for a short time, he could have done so more discreetly.)
Lesson 4: Use strings and tape when needed
New challenges require innovative thinking and solutions.
When Shelby and his team are testing a prototype of the GT40, Ford executives want them to use a sophisticated new computer with sensors to test the car’s aerodynamics. The computer may be the most cutting-edge technology, but it’s also heavy and bulky and actually slows the car down.
Frustrated, Shelby removes the computer and employs a much more innovative, yet low-tech, solution. As an example of leading under pressure, he leads his team in attaching bits of string all over the car so they can observe how the air is flowing across all the surfaces of the moving vehicle. This simple test allows them to identify critical issues that were causing drag, and they make adjustments that give the car crucial, additional horsepower.
Shelby and Miles had 90 days to develop the revolutionary GT40. Today, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, that timeframe seems like a luxury. Each day matters as the pandemic progresses. The Ford Motor Company has quickly pivoted from making cars to producing ventilators, face masks, and other crucial medical equipment.
The automaker is leveraging its manufacturing and supply chain capabilities to create thousands of life-saving devices that will help people urgently in need.
Ford’s rapid and innovative response to COVID-19 is a powerful example of adaptability and creativity in a crisis. Learn more about Ford’s response to COVID-19.
For more immediately applicable leadership lessons from recent films, click here.