By Mica Hemingway, Guest Editor
A critical need in our nation today is personal accountability. Americans are coming to believe that our actions matter, both at the micro and macro levels. And positive role models are more important than ever. “Accountability is best developed in an environment where it’s regularly demonstrated and emphasized by honorable, balanced leaders,” says leadership expert Lee Ellis. But where do we, as leaders, look for inspiration?
Days after taking the job as General Motors’s CEO in 2014, Mary Barra had to confront a global scandal that threatened to close the doors of the automotive giant forever. An ignition switch design malfunction in some of its older models had resulted in 124 deaths and nearly 300 injuries. To make matters worse, internal documents came to light showing lower level executives within the company had known about the issue since at least 2004 yet rejected a proposal to fix it because of cost. Barra refused to shirk responsibility.
She immediately issued recalls on affected vehicles, then launched an internal probe, hiring two outside law firms with Anton Valukas, who investigated Lehman Brothers after its 2008 collapse, to lead the investigation. Within weeks, she fired the 15 employees responsible for allowing the faulty switches on the assembly line, disciplined 5 employees who contributed to the issue, and appointed a new safety chief. To keep customers safe while they waited for their cars to be repaired, Barra offered free rental vehicles. And to help compensate families and victims affected by the faulty switches, Barra established a fund containing more than $550 million.
She wasn’t finished, however. In a town hall-style meeting, broadcast to GM employees and covered by news outlets, Barra took accountability to a new height. “We failed,” she began. “We didn’t do our jobs.” The words that followed that opening are important:
After she instituted her policy of personal accountability, engineers began reporting issues in greater numbers. By the close of 2014, Barra had recalled more than 30 million cars for warrantied repairs. The company took a tremendous financial hit, but it rekindled consumers’ trust that GM now put their safety ahead of profit.
Without accountability, organizations and people can lose sight of the bigger picture. However, when we, as leaders, set the example by speaking up when something is wrong, and by publicly doing the right thing, even when the stakes are high, we establish a culture of transparency and collective gain. Whoever we’re leading and wherever we’re headed, the right step begins with us.
Join the Conversation!
Mary Barra knew that nothing could be solved without accountability. She understood that before real change could occur, real ownership of the problem was necessary. How do you think personal accountability will be important as our country strives to find its new normal? How do you think we can set this example for our teams? Let’s share ideas in the comments, below, as we all work together during this time.