GM CEO Mary Barra: Responsibility and Learning from Mistakes

Blog Post Enterprise-Wide Transformation

Enterprise Transformation

This week, the newly appointed CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra — noted for her transformational leadership — will testify before Congress regarding the automaker’s recent ignition switch recall crisis. When she does, USA Today says she’d be wise to learn from past debacles between the automaker and Capitol Hill — for example, the auto bailout of 2008 — in what Today calls, “searing rhetoric from members of Congress who were quick to slam [previous] executives’ perceived arrogance and dwell on the companies’ mistakes.”

Fortunately, it appears Barra has learned from the past, and is not pretending to be infallible. While she states that she first learned of the decade-old problem in December 2013, she was quick to issue apologies and publicly take responsibility.

Barra’s behavior shows that leaders aren’t perfect, and they shouldn’t pretend to be. In fact, by handling their mistakes well, leaders can be an example to everyone in the organization. Here are some ways to accomplish that.

  • Acknowledge the mistake: Don’t blame someone else or outside circumstances. Take full responsibility for what’s gone wrong. Explain what happened and why it was a mistake, and what will be done to correct the error. Unfortunately, leaders often believe that admitting that mistakes were made makes people less likely to trust you. Not making this admission can kill your credibility.
  • Enlist others: You can take full responsibility for the mistake, but you should get help in finding and implementing a corrective action plan, especially when the mistake is a major one.
  • Don’t embellish or dramatize: Explain the mistake, address a solution, and move on. How you handle the mistake should not change, regardless of whether it was a big error or a small one. But the degree to which you address the mistake — and the detailing of the issue — should be proportionate to the mistake itself.

Let others fail, too: If you can make mistakes, and correct them, they can, too. There are limits to the number and severity of mistakes anyone can make in an organization, but some errors have to be allowed if you want people to take risks. Just make sure they have the room to own their errors and correct them.

Discussion