“The chief proof of man’s real greatness lies in his perception of his own smallness.” — Arthur Conan Doyle, 1890
“Alan, what kind of car do you drive?”
That was the question I put to Alan Mulally, CEO of Ford Motor Company, in December 2008 — the final question at a Q&A session on Twitter that would mark the first time a Fortune 500 CEO took questions from Twitter followers.
I had engaged him in this impromptu interaction with fans about five months into my tenure and weeks after some high-profile appearances in front of Congressional committees, where U.S. automakers were under intense scrutiny.
So it was natural that interested and engaged people would want to know what kind of car the CEO of one of the Detroit automakers drove.
And his answer blew me away.
If you recall, late 2008 marked a tumultuous time for automakers, with the financial and automotive meltdown in full swing. GM and Chrysler were in a battle for their very existence, and Ford — which financed its turnaround plan two years prior — stepped up to support the industry.
I arrived in Dearborn that July, hired by Ford as the first executive tasked with leading social media and digital communications at a global level.
It was only ten days after I arrived that the company announced an $8.7 billion quarterly loss, and the Carpocalypse was underway.
As you might imagine, I wondered if I should pack my things and move back to Boston.
But many things I encountered, from the company’s vision to its progress on its turnaround plan to the dynamic and inspirational CEO, all told me that there was something special going on here — indeed, it was that sense that caused me to sign with Ford to begin with.
So when that December day arrived, we were previewing our product announcements slated for the January 2009 auto show with business and automotive press.
At one point during the session, a set of double doors opened, and in walked Alan Mulally and Bill Ford, shoulder to shoulder, ready to take questions from the gaggle.
One of my secret weapons as an executive was maintaining an active and transparent Twitter feed, engaging with people about my own journey and the progress I was seeing inside of this American and global icon. As impressed as I was to see the CEO and the executive chairman together, I thought my followers would be as well, so I tweeted it out.
That’s when the magic happened.
Alan had been prominently in the headlines in recent weeks, having appeared before Congressional committees related to the automotive crisis, so his name was familiar to those attuned.
And one of my followers tweeted back, “See if you can get Alan to take some questions here on Twitter.”
As the press scrum broke up, and Alan emerged from it, he saw me and said,
“Hey, Scott! What’s up?”
The exchange exemplified the type of eager and interested leader he was:
“Alan, would you be willing to answer a few questions on Twitter?”
“Absolutely! What’s Twitter?”
Writing that line still makes me smile. He didn’t care about the technology or the platform; he simply wanted to be able to talk with people in a transparent way.
I quickly explained it to him, and he immediately saw the potential of this new way of being able to connect with consumers, investors, and many other groups of interested people at scale in real time:
So we ran through a few questions and finally landed on the doozy:
“Alan, what kind of car do you drive?”
Now, I didn’t know if his security team would be concerned with giving away Alan’s vehicle information, so I looked to them for guidance. They nodded a tacit approval, and Alan gave a response that I’ll never forget.
He looked me straight in the eye and said,
“Scott, I drive a different car every day.”
“Oh, that’s great! You make sure to experience the entire Ford lineup…”
He interrupted, grabbing my wrist and squeezing it gently in rhythm with his next sentence:
“No. I drive the competition’s cars too.”
And that’s when I realized that Ford was dealing with a very different CEO. One who understood that the industry’s myopic vision was keeping it from being truly competitive on a global level.
On the topic of ignoring external forces, Henry Ford said long ago:
“The competitor to be feared is one who never bothers about you at all but goes on making his own business better all the time.”
And there’s a certain truth to that, but it glosses over what it takes to lead a business to better results.
Alan knew that a good leader needs honest self-awareness combined with a healthy understanding of external forces. Neither one nor the other alone is sufficient.
Regardless of the vertical industry in which you ply your trade — manufacturing, retail, food and beverage, technology, financial services, etc. — or the department in which you sit (marketing, HR, communications, IT, etc.), you need to get out of your bubble.
It’s easy and tempting to simply rely on the experience of what we know and of those around us. But when we open our eyes to things that aren’t obvious, to instances that we might think don’t apply to us or our area of business, it can be transformative.
Looking outward while looking inward is essential for leaders looking for success.
Scott Monty, previously a Fortune 10 executive, is a strategy, communications and leadership advisor. He uses timeless lessons from history, literature and philosophy to help leaders make decisions with empathy, integrity, and wisdom. Website: https://www.scottmonty.com