Mary Barra’s Leadership

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Mary Barra’s Leadership

Mary Barra is the highest ranking woman in the automotive industry. She is the newest CEO of GM and in 2005 she appeared on the list of 100 leading women in the auto industry, by Automotive News (Business Week). These facts are just a glimpse at her success. Jerry Hirsch of the Los Angeles Times describes Mary: “When she starts her new gig on Jan. 15, she’ll be arguably the most powerful female executive in America, joining a group of just 23 women currently heading Fortune 500 companies. She’s the first woman to head a major automaker.” Behind every success story is the core of a person with values and techniques. Based on her actions and words, here are some notable leadership qualities of Mary Barra.

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Table of Contents

Mary Barra’s Leadership Qualities:

Persevering Attitude

It would be easy to believe that the CEO of an organization has led a charmed life with no big set-backs, but that’s not accurate. In fact, in Mary’s case, her ability to triumph through set-backs is a huge leadership skill. A prime example of this was in 2008 when GM and Chrysler fell into bankruptcy. Despite the turmoil, Barra conveys that she never doubted the company would survive. “It was very difficult and a humbling time,” she said, but she kept thinking “we’re going to get through” (Stanford).

Team Oriented

leader is only as strong as their team. Mary Barra never forgets that collaboration yields results. In interviews, she’s known for talking about her team. For example, in one Bloomberg video, she mentions something along the lines of “producing efficient vehicles is a team sport.” Mary also holds hall meetings to gather advice on project direction. Every leader who understands the importance of team effort and communicating appreciation is on the road to success.


Decisive decision making is a skill crucial to leaders. Though kindness, empathy and effective communication are all part of a team growth process, there comes a point when someone must have the final say. No group will see eye to eye down to the final decision at hand, so someone must be willing to put emotions aside and make a clear-headed choice. In a Stanford Alumni article, John Calabrese, GM’s Vice President of Global Vehicle Engineering who has worked with Mary says “I guess she kind of has a consensus approach, but when it’s not coming together, she gets concise and she’s pretty decisive.” Being able to pull the final threads of the tapestry into place by making final decisions is the mark of any good leader.


Similar to a parent’s futile attempt to exercise authority over their teen by treating them like a small child, leaders who fail to respect their team are asking for trouble. On the other hand, leaders like Mary who expend trust and offer responsibility to others, draw out the best results. How does one go about showing respect and trust? This can be seen in Mary’s efforts at GM to cut the number of required reports and simplify the dress code to allow for employee judgment. Bloomberg Businessweek reported that Barra once said “so you’re telling me I can trust you to give you a company car and to have you responsible for tens of millions of dollars, but I can’t trust you to dress appropriately?” Her rationale stands true across the board. If a workforce is comprised of carefully selected and qualified candidates (which it should be), then shouldn’t they be responsible enough to determine their own wardrobe for the office? Showing trust and handing out responsibility are characteristics of a respectful leader.

A look into the mind-set and qualities of a great leader can be life-changing. Though they seem like given concepts, they still slip through the cracks far too often. Every productive leader can benefit from reminders now and then.

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