Five Leadership Lessons from General Motors CEO, Mary Barra

by Steven Snyder on January 15, 2014

GMCCanyonReveal01.jpgI had the privilege of getting to know GM’s new CEO Mary Barra last summer, when we both attended Leading a Global Enterprise, an Executive Education Program at the Harvard Business School.

Barra embodies the very essence of a 21st century global leader, and she is a leader whom I have come to truly admire. Here are some of the lessons we can learn from her steady thirty-three year rise at one of the world’s largest corporations:

  1. Quiet leadership is a workable model for a senior executive. When we think of corporate CEOs, the prima donna image immediately comes to mind: flamboyant, lavish, egotistical, not a team player. Mary Barra is the complete opposite. She is humble and collaborative, eager to give credit to her team rather than steal the limelight herself. Being humble doesn’t necessarily mean lacking  in self-confidence. Barra exudes a sense of quiet confidence that makes you want to trust and admire her.
  2. Bring order into a chaotic world. One of a leader’s most important tasks is to impose order and rationality into the chaotic swirl that is today’s business environment. GM’s product development process was in disarray when Barra took over as product chief in 2011. There were 30 different platforms, and inefficiency and poor quality ran rampant. Barra immediately set to work, rationalizing the product line, improving quality and efficiency, and better aligning the product with customer needs. According to outgoing CEO Dan Akerson, Barra’s ability to bring order to the chaotic product development process was one of the major factors that led to her selection as GM’s next CEO.
  3. Build your own expanding hedgehog. In Good to Great, Jim Collins writes about the Hedgehog Model, the intersection of three essential factors for success: (1) what you are passionate about; (2) what you are really good at; and (3) what will reward you economically for your hard work. Barra’s career is the epitome of a perfectly executed expanding hedgehog play. She came to know her passion for cars at a very early age. Throughout her career she expanded the range of what she’s good at, starting with a foundation in engineering, and quickly acquiring skills in quality control, production, human resources, product development, and supply chain management. Lastly, Barra was able to realize the economic fruits of her labors. But she did this by keeping the company’s interests on center stage. By her own account, rather than thinking about the next step in her career ladder, she focused all of her efforts on being successful in her current job. By exceling in each of her many roles, she paved the way to make an ever-increasing economic contribution at GM. It was the economic value Barra created for her company that led to her own financial and career advancement.
  4. Never stop learning. Barra’s decision to take time away from her busy job, to attend the Harvard Business School program, is one indication of the importance Barra places on learning and development. In each of her previous roles she learned crucial new skills. Now in the top job, she must further expand her skill set, adding global finance, marketing, and sales to her portfolio.
  5. Treat people with dignity and respect. Barra comes across as a genuine, caring, and authentic human being. When she led Human Resources in 2009, just after the GM meltdown, she replaced the bureaucratic image of HR with a human face, emphasizing personal accountability and responsibility. It is truly amazing how empowering it can be when a leader treats a worker as a capable and well-intentioned human being, instead of a number on the assembly line.

photo by GM 

Beth Miller January 20, 2014 at 10:23 am

As someone who has worked with much smaller businesses, these should resonate with all leaders from start ups to global corporations. Yet, what I find is that the most difficult for leaders is not the hard skills but the soft ones, which Mary Barra has embraced.

Tom Peters said it well in The Little Big Things, the hard numbers are the true soft stuff and the soft things were the truly hard stuff.

Evan Wahl January 20, 2014 at 12:12 pm

Fantastic article. This is spot-on when running any organization. I love the mention of Good to Great!

Srikanth January 21, 2014 at 2:57 am

Fantastic article, Steven. Having just finished reading Jim Collins’ classic, this article was a nice dessert!

I notice a pattern, though – most success stories describe Level 5 leaders staying for decades in an organization, working through different functions; along the way, they receive the necessary sponsorship to be groomed for executive leadership. I haven’t seen too many examples of Level 5 leaders who’ve switched companies, yet have made it to the very top in a new environment. My guess is that the qualities of a level 5 leader, by their very nature, need time and patience to develop and be noticed. Would you agree?

If this is true, it poses a challenge for executives in today’s economic and work-place flux. Sometimes, people need to switch companies while staying true to their calling – whether that calling is a domain, or industry, or some other higher purpose. How would such an “implant” executive flourish as a leader in a new organization, if s/he were to stay true to the principles of Level 5 leadership?

Tom Wagner January 21, 2014 at 5:01 pm

We’ll said! Amen, Hallelujah, Shut The Front Door!

judah January 22, 2014 at 11:06 pm

Well done Ms. Barra. It appears the principles of the late Dr. Stephen Covey are embodied in your leadership style. Obviously you have been practicing long enough not to have relied on these principles alone. I believe leadership from the heart is true integrity. Unfortunately, the latter is often found just as lacking as is business ethics .
Mission and vision should be lived and felt by those within the organization – employees, managers and shareholder and by those employed form and left framed on the boardroom walls or website.
According to an article by G. Moran (2014), “Employees are more loyal and enthusiastic when they work in an environment run by people they trust.”.

Thank you Mr. Snyder


Howard Fox January 24, 2014 at 5:47 am

The rise of the Quiet Leader!!! I love it.

Samuel Mahaffy February 5, 2014 at 2:31 pm

“Never stop learning” is great advice for leadership. It supports the culture of a listening organization that values relationships above agenda.

Kathryn Mayer March 4, 2014 at 6:28 pm

I really like the article distinguishes between quiet leadership and confidence and emphasizes continuous learning.

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