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Innovators: Edison, Ford, Smurfit

by Tom O'Connor on April 15th, 2014
Michael Smurfit: Ireland's 1st business-person to expand internationally

Michael Smurfit: Ireland's 1st business-person to expand internationally

Recent years have witnessed the emergence of a new generation of inventors – a truly amazing group of newly-minted web innovators.

Prominent examples are the respective founders of Facebook, Twitter & Paypal: Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey & Elon Musk.

This current web revolution recalls earlier mould-breaking times – including those standouts of history: the Renaissance,  the Discovery of the New World & the Industrial Revolution.

But the closest parallel is probably to be found with the latter half of the 19th century and early 20th century: built on the twin pillars of electricity & the combustion engine.

That period was dominated by 2 transformative geniuses: Thomas Edison & Henry Ford.

Though almost bipolar opposites in personality type (in Myer-Briggs’ terms, Edison is an ENTP and Ford an ISTJ), some common qualities still prevailed to make them triumph in their respective endeavours.

Principal among these was an unwavering urge/ambition/persistence to pursue their individual dreams.

This seemed to give them an unshakeable sense of destiny, from which they drew a bottomless well of energy to persist in the face of naysayers and setbacks.

James Newton, who was a bit of a Boswell to both, recalls in his wonderfully insightful book, Uncommon Friends,  how Ford had once made him a present of a bible, with a note drawing attention to his own favourite verse:

“now faith is the substance of things hoped for,
the evidence of things not seen” .

A scene from the old 1940 movie, Edison The Man, has Edison giving voice to the same notion.

As he awakes after a long sleep brought on from the exhertion & exhaustion of fruitless nights spent experimenting with his light bulb  –  he turns to his wife Mary, to explain, with the following words:

“I just had the funniest of dreams.
I was dreaming about Winter.
It was so cold the trees couldn’t shake.
And, daybreak froze fast as it was just turning to dawn.
All creation was freezing.
Question was: was I going to stay snug in bed
or get up & see what had happened.
Well, I got up. And, saw that the earth had frozen
fast on its axis. Couldn’t turn around.
Everything was pitched dark too.
The sun had got jammed between 2 cakes of ice and
was working so hard to get loose that it froze in its own sweat.
Well, I started off across country to see what could be done.
And, I met a bear. I told him what had happened and
he naturally bounced up & down on the ice, 
so hard that the hot oil welled out all over him.
Then I picked Mr. Bear up and I held him over the earth’s axis
and I let the hot oil drip.
Then I gave the Earth’s cog wheel a little kick backward
till I got the the Sun loose.
The earth gave a grunt and began to move
and the sun went up beautiful.
I lit my pipe by the light of its top hat and broke off a piece for myself.
Yes, Mam, I walked home with the sunrise in my pocket.”

I couldn’t help recalling these lines, on recently reading Michael Smurfit’s just published autobiography, A Life Worth Living.

The inner voice that drives Smurfit on is writ large through every challenge faced on his journey – that saw his small family-owned factory in Dublin go on to become the largest packaging company in the world.

His defining mantra could be straight from the Ford & Edison hymnsheet:

“I must, I can, I will …”

Sentiments well packaged (if you pardon the pun), in the many anecdotes he recounts.

PS1. For related Torc articles, please click on the following links: 
1. Personality Type: Nelson Mandela
2. Learning From The Movies
3. Trapattoni: some lessons in management
4. Flow, Mojo & Drive
5. The Leader as Teacher
6. Management: Machiavellian Style
7. Leadership: Ready, Aim, Fire  
8. How To Rebuild Group Morale

PS2. For related Torc training programmes, please click on the following links:
1. Leading with Resilience & Optimism
2. Leading with Innovation & Creativity
3. The Leader as Teacher

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