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Ford’s CEO Embraces History While Steering Toward Future

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Ford CEO Mark Fields shows off the new Velodyne Puck sensor at a press conference at CES.Photograph by Robyn Beck—AFP/Getty Images

U.S. car sales, we learned yesterday, hit an all-time record in 2015. But in spite of that, Ford CEO Mark Fields sounded last night like a man on a burning platform.

Fields was FORTUNE’s guest at our Brainstorm Tech dinner at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. In an interview with Adam Lashinsky, he said his company is “transitioning” from an automobile company “to a mobility company.” He said Ford (F) is “tripling the size of its autonomous vehicle research fleet,” and touted a range of futuristic projects that would allow you to turn on your house lights from your car or run a drone from the bed of your pickup. “Any business has to have one foot planted in today,” Fields said, “and one foot in tomorrow.”

The car industry is an extreme case, having barely survived the downturn only to discover its competitive set now includes Google (GOOG), Tesla (TSLA), Uber, Lyft and probably Apple (AAPL). But Fields’ talk of the need to remake his business is increasingly common among today’s big company CEOs. They are a generation of leaders who, in language at least, have taken to heart former Intel CEO Andy Grove’s warning that “only the paranoid survive.” They speak the language of continuous change.

Like many, Fields traces this back to Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma – a defining book for this generation of business leaders, and one Fields said he read 20 years ago. “I never forgot it,” he said. Never mind that Professor Christensen has recently protested his theory of “disruptive innovation” has been applied too broadly. Disruption has become the language of business.

Fields insists his company’s 113-year history is not a liability in this race for the future, but “a huge advantage.” In truth, of course, it is both. Right now, the markets seem to favor the new entrants, unburdened by the baggage of the past. But the future likely belongs to those who can somehow figure out how to embrace the new while preserving the best of the old.

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Alan Murray
@alansmurray
alan.murray@fortune.com