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Mindful : June 2015
of his life coexist, he wondered? But by encourag ing Ford to practice mindfulness of his own internal conflicts—analyzing his competing priorities and finding a way to balance them—Kornfield helped Ford get in touch with his intentions as a leader. Ford knew he had to change the fa mily busi- ness, turn it from an environmentally destructive corporation into one that was at least helping to cha nge things, even if it couldn’t be perfect. (On stage, he had just finished talking to a shocked crowd about future cities where personal cars were no more, because of how silly and wasteful it is to have so many people burning so much time a nd energy looking for pa rking.) “If we didn’t get on the right side of this we would end up like the tobacco industry,” Ford remembered. His fear was that in 20 years, people wouldn’t want to work for Ford, a nd he would be asha med to tell his friends about his work. Ford has had to tread lightly. He knows he is part of an emerging generation of mindful leaders, but is also sensitive to the fact that not everyone in Detroit is ready for an open discussion of such things. “ Being an environmentalist and a practitioner, I think they would have locked me up permanently, but there is a new generation coming through. It’s true in manufacturing, it’s true in banking, it’s true in almost every field.” This new openness among executives is a marked departure from the corporate culture of even a cou- ple decades ago, when sensitive types would have been run out the building. “There was this notion not only that you had to work, but that you couldn’t even admit that you had interests outside of work or a family, or something like this that was important to you. That drove a lot of people into hea rt attacks.” In time, Ford became more comfortable wearing his compassion on his sleeve. In 1999, ea rly in his tenure as chairman, he looked out his office window and saw smoke billowing from the compa ny ’s nearby River Rouge complex. He grabbed his coat a nd ran out the door. A deputy tried to stop him. “Generals don’t go to the front lines,” the subordinate pro- tested. Ford said, “Demote me,” and was on his way. A gas explosion had torn through the pla nt, kill- ing six a nd injuring dozens. It was one of the compa- ny ’s darkest days. When company law yers learned he had gone to the site of the accident they were horrified. His presence might open the compa ny to litigation. The law yers protested again when, in the aftermath of the explosion, Ford forged a relation- ship with the families of the six victims, whom he has remained in touch with years later. “That ’s what’s wrong with so many of our corporations,” Ford said of his law yers. “It’s one thing to meditate on compassion, but it’s another thing to act on it.” Ford’s behavior around the Rouge explosion was just one part of his push to create a more transparent, accountable company. “There’s such a greater level of transparency in our company, and that extends beyond facts and figures. Once you have tra nspa r- ency into the workings of the business, you also have tra nsparency into the people running those busi- nesses.” Ford pointed to Susan, the public relations executive sitting at his side. “ It used to be that some- one in Susan’s job was to let as little out as possible. Everything had to be shaped perfectly. And that’s of course cra zy, because none of us a re perfect.” Ford has not gone so fa r as to push for mindfulness training in the office. “That’s more of a personal jour- ney,” he said. Instead, he has tried to use his influence to soften the edges of a once hard-edged corporate culture, a nd to bring some awareness around envi- ronmental issues where previously there was none. He will, however, talk to other executives about how mindfulness a nd self-awareness have cha nged his life. “I talk more about ethics and values and sense of community. Because those are things that everyone can relate to. As soon as you start bringing in ter- When Bill Ford, a liberal arts grad and committed environ- mentalist, inherited the industrial empire founded by his great-grandfather, he was told to keep his views to himself. Now, three decades later, he’s among a gen- eration of emerging mindful leaders who are changing corpo- rate culture. Ford the environmentalist wrestled with Ford the industrialist—how could the two sides of his life coexist? PHOTOGRAPHBYREBECCACOOK 64 mindful June 2015