Leadership Lessons from GM CEO – Mary Barra

With a passion for helping others and remarkable business acumen, CEO of General Motors is a role model for many. Here are four leadership lessons from Mary Barra that every aspiring leader should live by.



After Mary Barra was passed on the baton of the most important position of General Motors, all eyes were on her. Some of them were that of admiration while many were also of condemnation and callous criticism.

In the very first year of becoming the CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra was faced with a major crisis involving safety malfunctions in the older vehicles of GM.

leadership lessons from Mary Barra

Source: General Motors

However, the crisis only made her stronger. She depicted her commendable skills of problem-solving and led GM out of the puddle with its reputation intact. Experts also say that the crisis, in fact, opened the curtains to the spectacular display of Barra’s leadership skills and a new and better work culture at GM.

Mary Barra is a role model for many.  Her leadership style is an inspiration for industry leaders in every sector.

Here are five noteworthy leadership lessons from Mary Barra that we all should learn

She is untethered by crisis

In her first year as the CEO of General Motors, Barra was faced with the ‘switchgate crisis’ that resulted in over 100 deaths. She led GM out of it by being honest and dealing with the problem head-on. She prioritized transparency and accountability – things that were absent in the culture of GM for a long time. Barra didn’t try to get rid of the scandal instead she made sure nothing similar ever happened again. She accepted GM’s mistake publicly, hired Kenneth Fienberg, known for handling high-profile victim compensation cases, and initiated a thorough investigation.

Millions of cars were recalled, several employees were fired and Barra had to testify against the Congress. She made customer safety and transparency a priority over costs. She then introduced the ‘speak for safety program’ that encourages employees to report issues without the fear of punishments to encourage accountability and responsibility.

She is an excellent communicator

One of the most noteworthy leadership lessons from Mary Barra to learn is the skill of lifelong learning and exploring. While rising through the ranks in GM, she moved through communications, human resources, operations, and management.

In her speech at the Wharton People Analytics Conference, she said, “really focusing on engaging with people, and making sure you do win their hearts and minds … and how you empower them, I think has been key.”

During the 1998 General Motors strike, Mary Barra was appointed as the internal communications director to bridge the communication gap between union workers and the management.  Her leadership style involves giving her subordinates and peers the space to express their opinions. With this communication flair, Barra was able to initiate a communications strategy where communication moved both ways on the hierarchy ladder so that meltdowns could be tackled before they materialized. Her communication style, which involves calling meetings impromptu to discuss issues and find solutions without delay, is another important leadership skill to learn from Mary Barra.

She looks at the bigger picture, always

GM was a sinking ship and the prime reason was red-tapism and lack of innovation. After she became the VP of global development, she eliminated redundant executives involved in decision making to make the decision-making process swift.

An extraordinary example of the remarkable leadership skills of Mary Barra is how she put General Motors back on track from filing bankruptcy to regaining its stature of being one of the most important auto companies in the US in just four years.  She did it by bidding farewell to outmoded operations and prioritizing innovation. On her watch, GM invested millions in electric vehicles and self-driving cars to keep the company profitable in today’s agile world. As a result, GM walloped Tesla by rolling out moderately priced, long-range electric vehicle.

She cares

Leadership lessons from Marry Barra teach us how important it is for leaders to act responsibly for people and the society. Equileap’s 2018 Global Report on Gender Equality noted that GM is one of just two global businesses that have pay equality in top, middle and bottom ‘bands’ as well as overall no gender pay gap across the company.

In the commencement speech she delivered at Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2016, she said, “As leaders, we have an obligation to act responsibly and courageously for people and the planet, because our actions have long-term effects on the generations that come after us. It means creating workplaces where every employee is empowered to contribute to his or her full potential. It means working to improve the communities where we live and work by.”

With a passion for helping others and remarkable business acumen, CEO of General Motors is a role model for many. Here are four leadership lessons from Mary Barra that every aspiring leader should live by.

Carrie Ann
Carrie Ann is Editor-in-Chief at Industry Leaders Magazine, based in Las Vegas. Carrie covers technology, trends, marketing, brands, productivity, and leadership. When she isn’t writing she prefers reading. She loves reading books and articles on business, economics, corporate law, luxury products, artificial intelligence, and latest technology. She’s keen on political discussions and shares an undying passion for gadgets. Follow Carrie Ann on Twitter, Facebook

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