Leaders Made, Driven by Tomato Soup Cans

By Gary Oppedahl and Autumn Gray

“Everything can always be done better than it is being done.” – Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Co., and sponsor of the development of the assembly line technique of mass automobile production


Tomato soup provides numerous health benefits, from boosting your nervous system to helping fight chronic disease. But to achieve continuous growth and a more engaged life, consider holding onto the can it comes in.

Here’s why: A friend has a story about watching a car assembly line in his youth. He tells of marveling at the buzz of activity around the vehicles as they transformed from a hodge-podge of parts into finished cars at the end. After a time, he noticed one of the cars had a tomato soup can tied to its rearview mirror. He asked the plant manager to explain.

The man, proud of working in the auto industry for decades, stood a little taller and puffed his chest out like a mating prairie chicken, and said, “Those cars are for us employees. We turn the nuts a little tighter and work the fit a smidge closer and shine the finish that much brighter on the ‘canned’ cars.”

At that point, most people would probably tell the plant manager of a more personal place he could stick his cans. But instead of turning several of the metal objects around him into projectiles, the young man took to higher ground, without weaponry or bitter words, and thanked him.

“You have opened my mind,” he told the manger. “I have a new perspective on life and the choices in front of me. From now on, I will tie a tomato soup can to everything I do to ensure that all my actions are put forward with a little extra effort toward excellence.”

(In pursuit of excellence, he also silently vowed never to buy a car from that company.)

The young man grew up to be a leader. He was one of the few who, with intentional daily effort, always asked himself what action he could take in a given situation to make it better, whether at work, home or in the community.

According to a Gallup study, the percentage of U.S. workers in 2015 who were engaged in their jobs averaged just 32 percent. The majority – 50.8 percent – of employees were not engaged, while another 17.2 percent were actively disengaged. To be engaged meant that the employee was involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work, feeling they had a daily opportunity to do what they do best and that their activities were strongly connected to successful outcomes.

The Gallup research was, in part, impetus for the City of Albuquerque and Central New Mexico Community College to partner with Marion Ewing Kauffman’s Ice House Entrepreneurial Mindset Training Program. The 2014 pilot, which enrolled 100 City employees in the program, was the first of its kind in the world and was immediately successful – unleashing individuals’ potential, empowering them to think for themselves, teaching them to view problems as opportunities and to recognize that an infinite number of choices are available at all times. (See details at mindsetmemo.com.) Today, the program has expanded into high schools and businesses and is transforming how our city thinks and works.

While the Gallup research focused only on people’s relationships to their jobs, it is likely fair to extrapolate that the majority of people are also not engaged with meaningful activity outside of work.

We are an assembly line society, cans not usually included. We wake up, perhaps hit the gym, maybe take care of children or pets, go to work, run some errands, have dinner, watch a little TV, sleep, repeat. Alter slightly on weekends.

The amount of purposeful, thoughtful, potentially risky, innovative action each of us takes on a daily basis to shake up the world a bit and try to make it better?

Anyone who complains about any aspect of Albuquerque should ask of themselves that question. To move our community forward requires engagement, contribution and above all, leadership – not only at work but in all we do.

Poor leaders say, “They should do something.”

Good leaders say, “We should do something.”

Great leaders say, “I will do something.”

Which will you choose on the assembly line of life?

go to top