Leadership Style of Mary Barra: Giving Employees a Voice

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Leading an organization of a global reach and a centennial history i9s an enormous challenge. However, despite the pressure and the presence of major impediments to GM’s success in the global market, Mary Barra, its new CEO, as managed to promote the active development of the company and spur its economic growth (Mathis-Pertilla, 2021). By choosing the leadership framework that has allowed Barra to encourage active participation, involvement, and, therefore, motivation and engagement in staff members, she has set GM for exceptionally positive performance in the global context.

As many leaders, Barra has a rather complicated and exciting personal journey. Born in Royal Oak, MI, to a family of a Finnish descent, Barra showed notable interest in learning and succeeding. She attended the Waterford Mott High School as a student, quickly realizing that, apart from engineering, she was also interested in leading the change (Mathis-Pertilla, 2021). As he enrolled into Kettering University, previously known as the General Motors Institute, Barra recognized her potential and started seeking the means of fulfilling it to the best extent possible (Mathis-Pertilla, 2021). Remarkably, the automotive industry represented the field where Barra’s leadership characteristics could merge with her engineering skills, therefore, making her a perfect advocate for change in the corporate setting. Having received an MBA degree at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Barra started seeking employment opportunities, with GM being one of the primary sources of opportunity.

Having had an experience of working with GM when she was studying at the General Motors Institute, Barry was quite ready to become an active member of the GM community immediately after the organization employed her. While Barra occupied a rather humble position at GM at first, being responsible primary for quick and simple inspections of the production process, she shortly proved herself to be an excellent engineer and, most importantly, a perfect coordinator and negotiator (Mathis-Pertilla, 2021). As a result, Barra soon gained a leading position in the engineering and administration departments of GM (Mathis-Pertilla, 2021).

Finally, Barra’s excellent performance and her ability to generate crucial ideas for improving organizational processes and communication efficiency led her to receive the job of a CEO of GM (Mathis-Pertilla, 2021). In hindsight, the described journey might seem as nearly unrealistic; however, Barra has proven that, with due focus, diligence, and inspiration, one can overcome the odds and become a prominent agent of change.

Distilling the characteristics that make Barra’s leadership strategy unique, one should mention the extent of trust that she puts in her staff members in regard to their participation in decision-making and management of their workplace responsibilities. Specifically, Barra explains that she uses active listening as the means of encouraging staff members to share their ideas and encourages employees’ engagement in the company and its key issues (“Lessons from GM’s Mary Barra,” 2013). According to Barra, “everybody does a better job when they’re able to balance” (“Lessons from GM’s Mary Barra,” 2013).

Therefore, the leadership approach that Barra has been deploying to build premises for change at GM can be characterized as a combination of the transformational and Laissez-Faire frameworks. However, while the Laissez-Faire technique suggests a certain degree of alienation between managers and staff members, Barra’s framework encourages leaders to communicate and collaborate closely with staff members, having a clear grasp on their needs and attitudes within the team (“Lessons from GM’s Mary Barra,” 2013). Therefore, Barra’s approach is undeniably effective in a diverse setting, where employees’ needs and satisfaction must be among the top priorities to retain the competitive advantage owing to proper product quality.

Given the fact that Barra’s approach is linked directly to the notions of the Transformational Leadership approach and the importance of communication with staff members along with the recognition of their agency within the firm, Barra’s strategy can be examined from the tenets of the Participative Theory (Mathis-Pertilla, 2021). As its title suggests, the Participative Theory requires employees’ participation as a vital part of the leadership framework (Mathis-Pertilla, 2021).

While the described approach is not as flexible as the frameworks under the Contingency Theories of leadership are, it still offers a substantial leeway for introducing staff member to the concept of organizational decision-making and participative leadership, primarily, in decision-making (Mathis-Pertilla, 2021). As a result, the specified framework allows employees to feel important agents of change in the organizational setting (Mathis-Pertilla, 2021). Indeed, according to Barra, the opportunity to share their opinions and be heard in the corporate context has led to employees demonstrating significantly improved performance results (Mathis-Pertilla, 2021). Therefore, in the GM setting, the focus on participation as opposed to previous model creates the platform for employees to feel more fulfilled, which, in turn, encourages them to perform better and become more engaged with the company’s success in the target market.

Similarly, the leadership approach that Barra has been applying to the GM setting has entailed significant changes in employees’ behaviors. Predetermined by the shift in engagement rates and motivation explained above, the changes in employees’ behaviors can be described as the transformation toward embracing change and responsibility. Specifically, while staff members at GM have been gaining an increasingly large range of agency and opportunity to show initiative in the corporate context, they have also been encouraged to acquire critical corporate values, including corporate social responsibility (CSR) (Mathis-Pertilla, 2021).

Additionally, the acceptance of essential ethical premises for decision-making and their active use have been encouraged at GM since Barra became the CEO (Mathis-Pertilla, 2021). The specified alterations in employees’ behaviors are indicative of their understanding of the dramatic role that ethical decision-making and fairness in the workplace have on the company’s performance and its global image (Mathis-Pertilla, 2021). Therefore, Barra’s leadership approach aimed at introducing staff member to the concept of shared leadership supported by active communication and support of continuous and thorough discussions between leaders and employees has created premises for a radical change in staff members’ behaviors.

However, one should not assume that Barra’s path to an aspiring CEO and an effective leader promoting change has been completely devoid of any obstacles. On the contrary, due to the innovative nature of her approach and the focus on communication in the settings that could be described as highly diverse, Barra has been facing quite a number of situations that could result in serious confrontations. For example, the 2014 recall crisis could have become a catastrophe is Barra had not recognized the necessity to introduce immediate changes to the leadership style that had been adopted at the company previously and switched to the one that would become her trademark approach instead. Specifically, the situation under analysis involved addressing a massive case of a manufacturing error that led to the faulty mechanism installed into GM’s cares (Feloni, 2018).

After the specified issue ad caused 124 deaths and numerous injuries, Barra authorized an urgent recall of the vehicles with the following compensation, yet the damage was quite substantial (Feloni, 2018). Thus, Barra recognized the urgent need to switch to another leadership style that would introduce greater workplace responsibility and encourage staff members to identify mismanagement of key processes.

Another challenge associated with the leadership process that Barra had to encounter after becoming the CEO of GM concerned the issue of layoffs. In 2018, GM faced an extraordinarily complicated dilemma of either laying off 14,000 employees by cutting the specified number of jobs, or suffering a prolonged and extensive crisis (Hinssen, 2020). The described issue sparkled numerous debates within the American community due to the controversy of the solution that Barra had to accept at the time (Hinssen, 2020). The ethical challenge that Barra was facing was nothing short of being emotionally devastating. However, Barra had to make a final decision, no matter how difficult it seemed, which implied that she had to lay off 14,000 employees (Mathis-Pertilla, 2021). The specified solution indicated that the company was preparing for a significant renovation and a shift in the leadership strategy and decision-making approach.

As emphasized above, the transition to a new leadership approach that would incite a shift in employees’ attitudes toward their workplace responsibilities and encourage them to shape their performance were the main approaches that Barra integrated to address the crises in question. Specifically, as the recall situation has indicated, the shift toward the leadership framework that would make Barra famous for her innovative strategy represented the primary means of controlling damages and addressing the problems that the faulty mechanism in cars produced (Mathis-Pertilla, 2021). Specifically, the focus on quality was achieved by changing the extent of employees’ involvement in quality control by providing staff members with greater responsibility and power in decision-making (Mathis-Pertilla, 2021). The described solution has allowed identifying problems in manufacturing at the earliest stages and preventing the situations in which these defects are passed unnoticed (Mathis-Pertilla, 2021). Consequently, the process of quality control has been reinforced dramatically.

However, overcoming the second challenge described above was a significantly more difficult process for Barra. Since the task of cutting 14,000 jobs implied dismissing employees, who have been contributing to GM’s growth and success, the specified choice meant betraying the trust of the company’s stakeholders, primarily, its staff members, to a substantial degree (Mathis-Pertilla, 2021). Therefore, the ethical challenge that Barra was facing at the time was extraordinarily high. In turn, to overcome it, a shift in the company’s priorities had to be made. Specifically, with the enhancement of the role of responsibility in the organizational setting, the trajectory of GM’s development became incompatible with the attitudes of some staff members. Thus, the transition to a new leadership and management approach, as well as the realignment of priorities and ethical standards, has allowed Barry to adders the specified obstacle.

The importance of the outcomes observed in GM after the introduction of innovations inspired by Barra is truly unparalleled. Specifically, by amplifying the employees’ voice in decision-making and introducing their perspectives into the corporate management process, Barra has achieved the results that have made GM the leading organization in the market. Specifically, employees’ feedback has supplied Barra with an insider look at the key manufacturing issues, as well as the related concerns observed at different stages of production (Mathis-Pertilla, 2021). As a result, Barra remains informed about the main impediments to productive performance, which allows her to shape the corporate strategy in the way that is most beneficial to GM and the stakeholders involved (Mathis-Pertilla, 2021). Thus, the significance of the change that Barra has introduced into the GM context cannot possibly be overstated.

Specifically, the lessons in question have proven the need to remain flexible in the global economy and maintain the principles of responsibility and innovation. By allowing staff members to accept the role of active participants in corporate discussions, one will be able to elicit essential information about the challenges observed at different stages of the production process. Moreover, the key factors leading to the emergence of defects and the related issues can be isolated and removed successfully so that an organization could continue delivering the products of the finest quality. Thus, Barra’s case has introduced a range of lessons that are vital for any company’s performance.

Due to the focus on employee participation and their increased agency in corporate decision-making, Barra has managed to create the sense of responsibility that staff members could recognize as essential in the corporate setting and accept enthusiastically. Moreover, Barra has introduced employees to the idea of leadership in the context of the corporate environment. As a result, she has built the setting where shared responsibility and the significance of corporate goals prevail, with every decision being rooted in the corporate ethics and organizational standards. Therefore, with the help pf Barra’s insightful approach to leadership, GM has received the boost that will allow it to continue thriving in the global automotive market. Although Barra has faced several challenging situations, she has managed to fight the identified obstacles, thus, proving her leadership strategy as viable.


Mathis-Pertilla, F. (2021). Female CEO leadership: Viewing global strategy through a systems archetype lens. The Journal of Business Diversity, 21(1), 76-89.

Lessons from GM’s Mary Barra. (2013). CA.Finance.Yahoo. Web.

Feloni, D. (2018). GM CEO Mary Barra said the recall crisis of 2014 forever changed her leadership style. Business Insider. Web.

Hinssen, P. (2020). How Mary Barra resurrected General Motors. Web.

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BusinessEssay. "Leadership Style of Mary Barra: Giving Employees a Voice." December 23, 2022. https://business-essay.com/leadership-style-of-mary-barra-giving-employees-a-voice/.