Transformational Leadership: Lessons from GM’s Mary Barra


Mary Barra

Mary Barra is perhaps the most scrutinized woman in the automotive industry. Why? She is the first female CEO of General Motors, and one of few females taking up space in automotive companies’ C-suites. Currently, the percentage of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies is at an all-time high: 6.4%. In the automotive industry, women are even less represented, only taking up 16% of the automotive industry’s jobs, and they report higher levels of harassment in this industry than in tech and advertising. Until 5 years ago, that was just ‘how it is’ but when Mary Barra was named CEO in December 2013, she became someone to watch. In the 5 years since then, she still is on everyone’s radar. In 2018, GM ranked #1 on the 2018 Global report on Gender Equality. Forbes reports that it is “one of two global businesses that have no gender pay gap”. These statistics are even more powerful when one considers that the automotive industry has long been considered a man’s world. Barra’s critics say that she was chosen just because she is a woman; some even say she was chosen to take the blame as the company went through the ignition-switch crisis. This is very unlikely since she was raised in a GM family and has been working for the automaker for 39 years. But even if her appointment as CEO had hidden motives, her track record since then has shown her to have a razor-sharp acumen, bold decision-making skills, and transformational leadership strategies.

General Motors has long been regarded as a company that is slow to change and resistant to entrepreneurial strategies; due to its global scale, that could be true. Barra, however, has ushered in an era of forward thinking and experimentation with flexibility and adaptation. Examples include GM’s early investment in autonomous car technology and their recent cuts of sedans in the lineup that are out of style in this SUV-hungry market. Barra’s bold decision-making led to this investment that will likely pay off as the industry shifts to focus to autonomous, electric, and shared vehicles. Barra will likely be remembered for her dynamic decisions, and these news-worthy actions are driven by her transformative leadership style.

The textbook used in the B&E department’s Organizational Behavior class, “Organizational Behavior: Improving Performance and Commitment in the Workplace” by Colquitt, defines transformational leadership as a strategy that “involves inspiring followers to commit to a shared vision that provides meaning to their work while also serving a role model who helps followers develop their own potential and view problems from new perspectives”.

Just a quick Google search shows how well Barra fits this definition:

Barra constantly reiterates her vision for GM to transition into a technological leader, especially in the areas of connection, automation, ride-sharing, and electric vehicles. She frequently posts on LinkedIn and Twitter with her thoughts and visions, supports Women in STEM, and participates in campaigns like #ILookLikeAnEngineer. Driven by Barra’s leadership, GM notably beat the Tesla Market 3 to market with their Bolt, which also boasts a higher range than the Tesla. Barra also demonstrated her commitment to employee’s ethical concerns and values by taking full responsibility and stressing transparency and accountability during the ignition switch crisis of 2014.

Along the same vein, Barra frequently offers advice and inspiration to women in the industry, aspiring leaders, or anyone looking to move up the ladder. According to interviews like one with UPenn’s Wharton School of Business, Barra frequently asks for feedback from her employees and tries to understand their point of view from both an emotional and rational standpoint. She also has been known to lead the company culture by example; when Barra was head of Human Resources, she reduced the company’s dress code from eight pages down to two words: “dress appropriately”. This may seem like a small change, but it allowed employees to take responsibility for their appearance, increased autonomy, and contributed to a feeling that Barra trusted them.

Anyone looking to follow Barra’s example in leading in a transformational way can reference what students learn in Organizational Behavior:

  • Make sure your desired outcomes are clear to your staff, and make sure they feel confident they can deliver those outcomes.
  • Behave in ways that earn the respect and trust of your followers so that they more strongly identify with you.
  • Foster enthusiasm for a commitment to a shared vision for all.
  • Challenge your employees to be innovative by questioning assumptions and the old way of doing things.
  • Help your employees achieve their potential by working alongside them and being their mentor.

In these ways, every manager or leader—no matter what their job title—can provide followers with meaningful and satisfying work that helps them develop their potential and commit to the shared vision of the organization.


Colquitt, J. A., LePine, J. A., & Wesson, M. J. (2018). Organizational behavior improving performance and commitment in the workplace. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.

Rachel is a third-year student at Chatham studying Marketing. She expects to graduate in December 2019 and will pursue a career in marketing consulting or automotive marketing soon after.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to toolbar