Section 13: Leadership

From Ty Gioacchini (Winter Term, 2021):

The Leader or Organization

Mary Barra is currently the Chief Executive Officer and Chairwoman of General Motors’ Board of Directors. She has been leading GM since January 15, 2014. GM is an automotive company based in Detroit which employs over 85,000 people in the United States of America and more than 164,000 around the world. The company makes significant investments to support the communities it serves (GM in the U.S.).

Barra has enjoyed a long career with GM since 1980 when she was a co-op student. Her prior executive experience with GM has included serving as vice president of Global Human Resources, VP of Global Manufacturing, and most recently as VP of Global Product Development (Mary T. Barra, CEO).

The Leadership Practices

Barra makes a leadership commitment to her employees, customers, and the organization’s relevance in the future. “She is focused on improving the customer experience and strengthening GM’s core vehicle and services business, while also working to lead the transformation of personal mobility through advanced technologies like connectivity, electrification and autonomous driving” (Mary T. Barra, CEO). By utilizing three key principles, she is able to accomplish this. Bob Rosen (2014) summarizes these nicely:

“Keep it honest and keep it simple” refers to Barra’s candidness and candor. She is direct about what needs to happen and is willing to do what needs to be done.

“Make it about the company and the customer” speaks to how Barra brings the focus of gaining and retaining customers into the daily operations of GM by putting customers at the center of their work, maintaining good and meaningful relationships internally and externally, and by acting with integrity.

“Use kinetic energy to mobilize people” is a reflection of Barra’s approach of viewing challenges as opportunities.

Impact Created

When she was leading Product Development, Barra took a stance and gave her folks a goal: “No more crappy cars”, and she was not willing to let anything get in the way of that. (Rosen, 2014). This is certainly something she has carried forward with her into the CEO role. Last year, in 2020, General Motors was J.D. Power’s top pick for initial quality (GM Ranks as Top Automotive Corporation, 2020). By implementing a vision and being willing to provide the resources teams needed in order to be successful, she was able to help GM accomplish this.

Barra’s focus on the company’s future and relationship with customers has also paid off. She has approached much of her work at GM “as if she would be doing it for the rest of her life” and this enabled her to keep herself at that moment doing good work to lay a solid foundation for the future (Rosen, 2014). By leading a drive toward making better cars and focusing on internal and external relationship building, General Motors has found its way to the top of a 2020 Experian report as having the highest loyalty for an automaker that produced several brands (Henry, 2020).

With a continued focus in these areas, GM can continue to achieve these titles. Additionally, they can continue to expand their goals, setting their sights on new frontiers where they can find their way to the top. A leader like Mary Barra can help the organization by continuing to see where they can grow and providing the necessary resources for the organization to be successful.

Connection to Course Concepts

Mary Barra seems to trust the capabilities of her employees to accomplish tasks and reach goals. This seems to underpin an approach of providing direction and then allowing them to make it happen. In terms of Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Theory, this aligns with a delegating leadership approach and level M4 follower maturity (Graduate Studies, 2019). Although Barra gives directives, they are not explicit authoritative road maps. She gives employees the space necessary to do their work as experts in their respective fields.

Building on this, she is also a leader who aligns with the Path-Goal Theory. This theory states that “it’s the leader’s job to assist followers in attaining their goals and to provide the necessary direction and/or support to ensure their goals are compatible with the overall objectives of the group or organization” (Graduate Studies, 2019). When she states a vision, like making better cars, she is willing to remove hurdles from the equation and support her teams however they need to be supported in order to meet the goals.

Future Implications

Mary Barra can continue to lead General Motors effectively toward the future, and can also continue to be a leader in general. She does not ignore seemingly simple goals, like making better cars, and also does not seem afraid to push toward the unknown, like autonomous and other novel automotive technologies. Other leaders can look at Barra and understand how to set a firm foundation and use that as the springboard for becoming an industry leader. They can also learn the value of removing obstacles for the people making your visions come true. Mary Barra is an excellent example of a leader setting their followers up for success.


GM in the U.S. United States Operations: By the Numbers.

GM Ranks as Top Automotive Corporation in J.D. Power’s 2020 Initial Quality Study. (2020, June 24).

Graduate Studies. (2019, December 11). Organizational Behavior.

Henry, J. (2020, December 31). Tesla No. 1 In Brand Loyalty, Then Subaru; GM Also Scores Well, Experian Says. Forbes.

Mary T. Barra, CEO. General Motors.

Rosen, B. (2014, January 1). Leadership Journeys – Mary Barra. IEDP.




Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Organizational Behavior Copyright © 2019 by Graduate Studies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book