Learning How to Lead From the Most Influential Woman in the World

Mary Barra, the Chairman & CEO of General Motors, recently met with a business school class here at the university.  A year ago she was named the most influential woman in the world.  Given this fact, I was particularly attentive when she began to speak to the students about leadership as influence.

She told of being trained as an engineer.  In her first job, she had a challenging task and no authority over the people involved.  To succeed, she had to win their hearts.  When she finally had her own unit, she learned the limitations of authority.  Even though she was in charge, she still had to win hearts.

Later in her career after many assignments, she was assigned to work in a role near the CEO.  As she watched the most senior people, she noticed they were always working to gain organizational support. Despite all their hierarchical power, they also needed to influence without authority.

She moved into a variety of other positions and her leadership style evolved.  She had to hold people accountable, make tough decisions, confront conflict, seek feedback, and still create trust and build coalitions.

In all of this growth there was one constant: authority was never sufficient.  She always had to influence without authority.  She had to attract people into the service of the common good.

This lesson is precious.  Many managers never learn it.  They make the unconventional assumption that the key to power is their formal position and related authority.  They operate from self-interest and call on their authority to get things done.  The fact that Mary, early on, learned to lead without authority and today claims that it is central to success captures my attention and raises the question, how does she influence without authority?

Speaking with an associate and a long-time colleague of Mary, I asked why it is that Mary seems to be able to think logically, make tough decisions, and still hold the respect of the people around her?

My friend did not hesitate.  She began to tell specific stories.  These were accounts from the time Mary was a new manager until the present.  As she finished the last story, she provided a simple answer to my challenging question:

“Mary leads without ego. The only thing that matters is the good of the company. She puts the collective good ahead of her personal good.  People know it, so in even the most difficult times, they support what she does.  They like working for her, they are loyal, willing to go the extra mile for her.”

In her Q&A with the students, Mary said, “I always like to assume the positive about people.” This was an example of positive leadership. The conventional manager often does not assume the positive, but Mary operates from an alternative paradigm.  Her leadership philosophy seems to orbit around moral power.  Scholars call it “idealized influence,” and research consistently shows it is one of the four central factors in exercising transformative influence.

Moral power is selflessness.  It comes from the capacity to put the collective good ahead of personal good.  This is not a natural thing to do yet it can be learned.  In listening to Mary’s story, I believe she was fortunate to have a first job that required her to wield influence without authority.  It seemed to sensitize her.  As she moved up, she remained a student and a practitioner of moral power.  The most influential woman in the world is inviting an entire corporation to transform and assume the positive.



Think of three managers near you. How does each orient to authority?

When have you witnessed the exercise of moral power at work?

How could you become a student and practitioner of moral power?

How could you use this passage to create a more positive organization?


3 thoughts on “Learning How to Lead From the Most Influential Woman in the World

  1. Great inspiration, Bob. Your blogs are always thought provoking for me and they encourage me to stretch myself and keep growing. Thanks for sharing.


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