Thinking Out Loud

The “Mary Barras” of the World

Much was made in the media about Mary Barra being selected as the next CEO of General Motors. She is the first woman to run a major auto manufacturing company, and in that industry at the age of 51 she is relatively young.

Having grown up in Detroit, I was also interested that she attended General Motor’s Institute where some of my high school friends also received their engineering degrees. It was prestigious to attend GMI because it guaranteed a first rate education, a job at GM after graduating, and apprentice/intern jobs during the summer while you were a student. Not a bad deal.

What most interested me in Barra’s appointment was her longevity with the company. She rose to a leadership position and eventually ran a major manufacturing plant, directed Human Resources, and currently directs global product development. She obviously knows the company inside and out.

When I heard the brief description of her job experience, I thought of Jim Collins’s work and book, Good to Great, and then remembered a television documentary based on the book that focused on CEOs of major great corporations: who they were, their philosophy, and what distinguished them as outstanding leaders. . . . Well, it turns out that these CEOs are people who rose through the ranks, are humble, listen really well, care deeply about people, know how to share power and responsibility, don’t have a large ego, and understand the importance of knowing who you are (as a person and company) and of striving to do what you do better and better. (click here) 

I don’t know Mary Barra but I want to think that she is like that. We need highly visible leaders who demonstrate these qualities. Even though we know these qualities of great leaders, something in many of us continues to be drawn to those who project the rock star image. It’s fine to be a rock star and it’s fine for entertainers and sports figures to glitter and project as bigger than life.

But figures who play to the press usually aren’t the best corporate leaders, even with the “marketing” value of their high profile. Corporate boards frequently overlook the hardworking, dedicated, long term, well-respected employee because the candidate may lack pizazz. That boards continue so frequently to be drawn to pizazz and believe that it’s a mark of leadership is narrow-minded and flies in the face of research. Somehow we don’t want to accept that the bigger than life individual is not necessarily a good leader.

So, I’m rooting for the Mary Barras of the world and what they represent. We need to restore trust in our institutions and we need those institutions to be, in the spirit of Jim Collins, great.

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