GM and Mary Barra: Why Does It Take A crisis For People And Organizations To Change?

Mary Barra GM

Why do organizations regardless of size have to be bureaucratic and politicized? Why do they on one hand espouse empowerment and on the other are disempowering and boring? They use archaic virtues of control, standardization, and conformity. Despite rapid change they paint the buildings, change the leaders, while holding on to old models of leadership in a world of pronounced complexity and uncertainty.

GM is experiencing a mountain of self immolating problems at a time when they should be focused on out competing Toyota and Ford.

Frankly, I admire the leadership of Mary Barra the new CEO of GM. I wrote my master’s thesis on General Motors who at the time suffered more from management malaise than legacy costs. Ms Barra has adroitly delved into the crisis of faulty ignition switches as well as any leader. In fact, quite disappointingly, her predecessors, excuse me ..male, side stepped the problems occurring on their watch. A simple treatise for meandering leaders and managers. “A crisis is the result of a simpler action long delayed.” Jim Woods.

Perhaps company’s begrudge forward change because they consist of people who themselves internally adore the “efficiency” of the staus quo. They admire certainty. Again I point you to Nokia where despite forward thinking and innovation protective silos perpetuated a leadership culture of “I’ve got my back. Do you have yours?” Take a moment to read this article from HBR.

All this hits only months into Mary Barra’s tenure as CEO. While GM’s crisis is dramatic and specific, the crisis and the way Barra is handling it offer a broad array of lessons and a fair dose of controversy about what good leadership looks like and how some in the media judge male and female leaders differently.

Barra has wisely opted to “own” the crisis — even though she’s only been CEO a short while and had no apparent role in the scandal. Nevertheless, she has taken on the crisis with full attention and focus, constantly facing both the media and her own employees with candor and honesty in the process. She has won well-deserved praise for her swift action and willingness to be accountable. But in an opinion piece in USA Today this week, Michael Wolff argues that Barra’s willingness to take responsibility for a crisis that was not of her making shows poor leadership and a female proclivity to seek the spotlight.

Wolff starts by criticizing Barra’s leadership in the crisis. He writes, “Barra could have personally sidestepped this. She’s only been the CEO for two months — it didn’t happen on her watch. And, anyway, CEOs assign responsibility, they don’t assume it.” By taking on this crisis, he argues, Barra defines her legacy from minute one with crisis not of her own making. It’s not clear what he believes she should have done differently, but it doesn’t stop him from writing a poor argument. […}

Read more via CEOs: Own the Crisis or It Will Own You – Lauren Leader-Chivée – Harvard Business Review.

Jim Woods

Jim Woods

See a partial list of Jim’s clients. Hire Jim Woods to Speak  | Follow us: Facebook | Follow us: Twitter | Skype ID – jim.woods79   Click here to schedule an appointment.

Jim is president of InnoThink Group a human resources and leadership management consulting firm. He has an absolute passion for people development and are constantly refining and adapting his programs in order to ensure that they have the maximum impact on those we serve.


Jim Woods is president of The Jim Woods Group. A management consulting firm. Go here to see his work He advises and speaks to organizations large and small on how to increase top line growth in times of uncertainty and complexity. Some of his speaking and consulting clients include: U.S. Army, MITRE Corporation, Pitney Bowes, Whirlpool, and 3M. See more at his website

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