This one is a bit longer – 1200 words. Reading time approx 10 minutes
The story of Fordlandia offers us a cautionary tale on many levels including environmental, cultural, innovation, ego and leadership. It is a complex story and is much simplified in this article, but I hope the story is of some value.
Fordlandia is the Brazilian Utopian brainchild of Henry Ford. He wanted to find an alternative supply of rubber for his car tyres and set about constructing the world’s largest rubber plantation with its own city.
Ford believed that he could create an authentic U.S city based on the principles that made his business and America great in the 1920’s. At great cost, not only to the natural environment but also to his pocket (20 million dollars) Ford built a rain forest city, complete with school, hospital, petrol station, dance hall, golf course and of course vast rubber production facilities. The whole plantation was the size of Yorkshire. The town itself housed over 2000 residents with the singular aim of producing rubber for car tyres – All deep in the Amazon basin. Talk about ambition!
Ford believed he would bring prosperity to what he viewed as an uncivilised part of the Earth. He stated, “We are not going to South America to make money, but to help develop that wonderful and fertile land.”
Ford ticked many Leadership boxes. An inspirational visionary driven to better the lives of people around the globe whilst sustaining the future of his empire.
Fordlandia began to be built in the 1920’s and survived until the 1940’s…Unfortunately, without producing a single rubber tyre.
What started as essentially a huge cost cutting exercise became an economic disaster. The Brazilian locals who once revelled at the prospect of Ford’s arrival soon became angered by their treatment – Ford, the shining symbol of prosperity, never visited the site of Fordlandia himself. Perhaps he trusted his leadership team too much on this occasion.
Revolts soon spread through the city following the draconian controls set out by the management team and at one stage the Brazilian military had to be flown in the keep order.
Fordlandia is one of the greatest examples of cultural insensitivity in the history of capitalist industrialisation.
Today, it is hard to believe that such a brilliant and inspirational leader could be so blinded by his advisers as well as his own ego and ambition. Ford mistakenly believed that he could simply replicate American culture and values on to an existing culture and it would simply be accepted without question.
They used American skilled workers and Brazilian labour but treated them vastly different. For example, the Brazilian workers didn’t have running water, whereas their American counterparts had all the luxury of home. Interestingly a stance directly opposed to Ford’s own values on workforce equality. The rules and controls workers were subjected to made Fordlandia a living hell – the resulting revolts were almost inevitable.
Secondly, Ford’s team failed to understand the nature of Brazilian rubber trees and how they were prone to disease compared to the more popular Sri Lankan variety. In the plantation they planted the trees too close together and blight spread across the whole plantation like a cancer. In later years the management did employ an expert botanist to address this problem, but profits were favoured over facts and he left the project after only a year.
Fordlandia was a complete and utter failure on a vast scale and was left to rot. It’s American population returned home after the land was sold back to Brazil for a fraction of the purchase cost. The Brazilian Locals were left wondering what had hit them.
Today, we hope such a project would never be attempted simply on an environmental level, but we can still learn more valuable lessons for Fords failed experiment.
21st Century relevance
Culture – As stated, this was an exercise in total cultural insensitivity. The importance of understanding culture is vital in the modern workplace. Culture is our operating system and any failure to recognise the societal element within an organisation invariably results in some form of contamination. Clearly there was huge inequality in this project which led to it becoming culturally unstable.
In addition, we might look at this example through the eyes of a new leader entering an existing organisation. Ford sold his dream to the Brazilian people by promising wealth and prosperity for a forgotten land. What his company delivered were poor conditions and suffering. Ford and his management team essentially sold the locals Hollywood and delivered Hell.
What we now understand is that if new leadership impose themselves through dominance on to an existing culture, insecurity and uncertainty will surely follow through an often-insidious uprising.(see my post on Manchester United – Mourinho vs Solskjaer)
Success is far more likely if a period of learning and integration takes place where the existing culture is understood and respected prior to any influencing or change work.
This period allows relationships to form so new ideas can be collaboratively explored and implemented.
The rules of governance are far more effective when they are created and evolve through goodwill discussion rather than imposed through strict dogmatic controls as seen at Fordlandia.
This again is a common cause for an up swell of discontentment. We can see that Ford mistakenly believed that what worked in one place should work everywhere. This one size fits all belief is cause for many leadership (and consultant) failings.
We should all remember that the success of one project does not necessarily dictate the success of the next.
Leadership & Ego – Fordlandia was a failure of leadership. Ford and his leadership team adopted a top down approach with disastrous consequences. Their inability to listen mixed with blind ambition is perhaps the most fundamental reason for it’s failure. Ford believed that his success and the utopia ideal of the American dream could simply be reproduced anywhere in the world. What he missed was the reality of relationships. Community and culture building requires time and space to evolve.
Innovation – Ford failed to find the problems or ask the right questions before it was too late. As such the appropriate learning did not happen – two key aspects of any creative task.
The top down approach taken by Ford and his team meant that decision makers were not open to crucial knowledge held by local communities. Ford and his team believed they already knew everything to make it successful. After all, they were the mighty American industrialists who were changing the world.
The lesson here is creativity and innovation often work from the bottom up based on shared knowledge and experience. Leaders should accept their own limitations and knowledge with humility – then listen. (Especially when you are on somebody else’s turf)
The notion of ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ may be a suitable epitaph to Fordlandia.
The nature of creativity
Ford was a genius – a pioneering innovator. As such he embraced learning of all kinds no matter how painful.
As you might expect, Henry Ford provides perhaps the greatest lesson of all when he stated:
‘Failure is the opportunity to start again, this time more intelligently’
We know (at least I hope we do) that the quality of our relationship’s changes everything. Leaders must understand that it is an outdated philosophy to constrict individuals with tight untrustworthy led controls. In the modern business world, leaders must provide workers and teams with a nourishing space to grow, learn and evolve within a safe and sustainable culture
Now that really would be Utopia.
Thanks for reading – Keep it UP!