Mary Barra, First Female GM CEO, Takes The Lead

GM Mary Barra

Does it seem odd for Mary Barra, the newly appointed CEO of General Motors—the first woman to hold that top position in the male-dominated automobile industry–to be profiled as a “woman like you” by the nonprofit organization Take The Lead I cofounded in late 2012?

According to reports chronicling Barra’s career path, she fits the earthy description quite well. The daughter of a die-maker who worked for GM 39 years and who herself entered the company’s technical school at age 18 to become an engineer, Barra’s step-by-step journey up through the ranks might speak of authenticity, hard work, and focus.

In the midst of the media flurry about Barra’s new role, my friend Leslie Grossman tweeted: “Experience Trumps Gender!”

But what I gleaned from colleagues who know both Mary Barra and the auto industry, it took way more than experience for her to land this position. And her 30-year trajectory could be a textbook for women like you and me.

First, the published reports of Barra’s leadership style read like McKinsey studies of the characteristics of women’s leadership that result in higher return on investment for companies that have greater numbers of women in upper management and on their boards. She’s described as a hard worker, a consensus builder, a team player whose people skills are lauded as much as her intense competitiveness. That’s authenticity—not trying to be other than who you are.

Second, her colleagues observe with admiration that this female steel ceiling-breaker, as my friend and former Ford executive Anne Doyle calls it adeptly, walks the politically delicate line between using her advantageous timing as a talented woman in traditionally testosterone driven industry to propel herself forward while not pushing the gender stereotype envelope too far.

As one person said to me, “Mary is definitely one of those ‘Influential Insider’ (I’m no feminist but….) women.” Still, say others, Barra has helped women move up in the company: “She is playing the game quite well – her way!”

Third, Barra aligned with a powerful male sponsor. Her timing was right with that too, since her sponsor, who happened to be her predecessor, Daniel Akerson, left sooner than anticipated due to his wife’s illness. Thus Barra avoided the dangerous shoals of mentor/sponsor conflicts that have wrecked many a relationship when the mentor feels his position threatened, or the ambitious mentee chafes waiting for the sponsor to leave.

While it chills my hot feminist blood to hear her peers say she won’t discuss gender parity, Mary Barra’s personal story and humble beginnings give me hope that as she gains confidence from success as CEO, she will continue to grow in her commitment to advancing other women. That’s important to leadership parity because as Anne Doyle observed, having female role models boosts the talent pool of women who might not have previously seen themselves in the picture. It’s incumbent on women like all of us to support her and reward her for every step she takes in that direction.


Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

Leadership Video: Is this dance a movement or mob?

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I love the virtual universe. In the blink of a mouse you can connect with a wide range of people who share your narrow set of interests. Social media Big Names like Seth Godin call this “finding your tribe.”

Tahrir Squares showed what happens when a tribe becomes a movement.

My friend Leslie Grossman, co-founder with Andrea March of the Women’s Leadership Exchange (I wrote about WLE in No Excuses as an example of power tool #7 CREATE A MOVEMENT), introduced me virtually last week to self-described “social media capitalist” Michelle Price.  Michelle, Leslie told me, helped WLE set up their new online program, and I wanted to learn more about the process and technology. I felt little prickles of excitement about this convergence.

On first e-mail, Michelle and I realized we have a tribal kinship. I resonated with her love of the leading edges of technology and she won my heart by saying my book should be sitting on every woman’s desktop. We share a mutual interest in thought leadership.

So what does one do when you meet someone new these days? Peruse her website of course. I found it full of interesting, fun, and thought provoking stuff.

One post called “Thought Leadership: How to Start a Movement and Get Your First Follower in 3 Minutes” featured the captivating video above. So I replayed it. The second time I watched, I realized I had a completely different take than the filmmaker. Here’s Michelle’s intro to the video:

So what does a 3 minute video on dancing have to do with thought leadership, launching a movement and getting YOUR first follower? Watch this video – it’s a study in human sociology at the least. You’ll see the “light of insight” flip on when you do.

One Video, Two Takes

According to the video’s narrator (with my reactions in italics):

1. A leader–in this case a guy who starts doing a weird dance solo on a grassy lawn with lot of people looking on–has to have the guts to look ridiculous.

(True, people who start movement tend to be boundary breakers.)

2. You must be easy to follow.

(I’m starting to furrow my brow because this misses the point that movements form to accomplish things too difficult for one person to do alone.)

3. The first follower has a crucial role—to publicly show the others how to follow. Calling to his friends to join in “transforms a nut into a leader.” The leader embraces him as an equal so the movement seems like it isn’t about the leader any more.

(OK, that makes sense. I’m rarely the first but am often an early adopter. Something doesn’t feel right though. Trying to “seem like it’s not about the leader” sounds manipulative–a hierarchy without acknowledging it.)

4. The third person to come in validates the first two: “a turning point—now it’s not a lone nut and then two nuts.” Three is a crowd, the voice-over says as the dancing becomes more fevered. A crowd makes it news—a movement must be public. People follow the followers not the leader.

(I notice that the first six people who join the dance are all men who have been invited in, and it isn’t till the seventh dancer that the first woman joins. I don’t want to kneejerk, but this looks more like a bunch of men creating a tribe of people with an emotional affinity than a movement with a shared purpose that systematically builds a coalition to get many diverse people involved to do things they couldn’t accomplish alone.)

5. As more people get up to dance, there comes a tipping point where it’s no longer risky to participate.  Those who join the dance “won’t stand out, they won’t be ridiculed.” It actually becomes more risky not to participate because holdouts would be ridiculed for not joining.  The moral of the piece is summed up like this: “When you find a lone nut doing something great, have the guts to be the first person to stand up and join in.”

(Yes, yes, have the courage to stand up with the lone nut doing something great—but that’s not the same as creating a movement.)

The End of the Movement? (Or Did It Never Begin?)

By this time in the video, everyone is up, writhing together in one big dancing hive that makes me think of William Golding’s book Lord of the Flies, about schoolboys stranded on an island. They form a primitive culture that turns out none too kindly.

The dance ends, the paroxysm of togetherness is complete, everyone cheers.

And that is the end of this particular movement. Participants had a great experience, but then what? They have formed a tribe of people who share a momentary affinity to be sure. Nothing wrong with that. But that’s a mashup–a mob not a movement.

Now I realize what’s been bugging me about this video as a metaphor for leadership and starting a movement.

Instead of beginning with one person doing a weird thing, I think a movement is created when one person sees an injustice or problem and reaches out to another with the purpose of doing something about it. For example, the Civil Rights movement had many individual aha’s followed by people coalescing together. They had the courage to raise issues they believed needed to be addressed: to organize a sit-in and then to create a Freedom Ride that would eventually build to changing laws and minds. They know they are stronger together—they aren’t just being manipulated to join in the dance.  And they all share risks too.

Rosa Parks, for example, wasn’t just any woman who happened to get ticked off at being sent to the back of the bus. She had long been active in the NAACP and knew the ground had been well prepared to parlay her refusal to go to the back of the bus that day into a major bus boycott that would last for over a year. It certainly wasn’t easy for African Americans in the South to find other ways to get to work—that is if their employers didn’t fire them for participating in the boycott.

A movement might grow fast, as the video says, if leaders make it easy for others to join and invite them in as equals. And symbols and emotional connection are important elements. But the dance must have a shared purpose to be a movement. And as the group grows, leadership (which will come from many places) must create systematic ways to achieve its purpose or it will flail arms at the end like tired dancers who have enjoyed a catharsis with their tribe, but accomplished little else.

Tahrir Square would have been just another mob and its energies might quickly have turned destructive without that shared sense of purpose and dispersed leadership.

Then, to sustain itself, a movement has to move, to change when needed, to continue to focus its energy on its purpose in ways that meet people’s needs today and tomorrow.

Which of these two different perspectives one takes away from the nutty dancing guy metaphor in this video has profound implications for movements and for leaders.

I can’t wait to discuss this with my new tribemate Michelle when we have our first phone conversation later this week.  Meanwhile, watch the video a couple of times. It’s infinitely fascinating. What are your observations?
































Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.