Truth in driving seat over corporate failure

Whatever the pain or soul searching, we should always try to do the right thing.

Which is why the chief executive of General Motors, Mary Barra, should be applauded.

When your company is heavily criticised in a report into an ignition switch failure, which caused engine stalls in Cobalt cars, with 13 deaths, the temptation would be to issue a short public apology and pay compensation, hoping to draw a line under a distressing issue.

But, in the words of Barra, not good enough, simply not good enough.

It transpired that experienced engineers, with responsibility for safety, didn’t understand that the airbags would not deploy if the ignition switch changed position.

Responding to the findings, Barra pulled no punches in a speech that would reassure GM customers while firing a warning shot across the bows of any complacent staff.

Citing “incompetence and neglect” over 11 years, she told 1,000 employees in Michigan: “This is not just another business crisis for GM. We aren’t simply going to fix this and move on. We are going to fix the failures in our system – that I promise.

“In fact, many are already fixed. And we are going to do the right thing for the affected parties. But I never want to put this behind us. I want to keep this painful experience permanently in our collective memories. I don’t want to forget what happened because I – and I know you — never want this to happen again.”

She also stated: “I can tell you the report is extremely thorough, brutally tough and deeply troubling. For those of us who have dedicated our lives to this company, it is enormously painful to have our shortcomings laid out so vividly.

“I was deeply saddened and disturbed as I read the report. But this isn’t about our feelings or our egos. This is about our responsibility to act with integrity, honor and a commitment to excellence.”

Employees are encouraged to bring any safety concerns straight to her, if they feel they cannot share it with supervisors.

Meanwhile, findings and recommendations from the internal investigation will be “a template for strengthening the company”.

Barra’s corporate moral virtue resonates with the thoughts of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, the Roman emperor and philosopher.

His works are relevant to the boardroom today as they were in his time of rule between AD 161 to AD 80.

For example: “Claim your entitlement to these epithets – good, decent, truthful; in mind clear, cooperative, and independent – and take care not to swap them for other names; and if you do forfeit these titles, return to them quickly…”

Senior management teams across all companies, large or small, would do well to take on board what Marcus Aurelius recommends.

Otherwise they could end up power-mad, out of touch, disconnected, as was the disgraced Commodus, his only surviving son out of 14 children with wife Faustina.

Commodus ignored his father’s austere lifestyle and wisdom.

Egoistical beyond comprehension, Commodus was assassinated by his appropriately-named wrestling partner, Narcissus, a name derived from a Greek legend where a man died falling in love with his own reflection, unable to tear himself away.

What General Motor’s Mary Barra sees in the mirror is something thankfully different – a business leader doing the right thing, direct and honest, unafraid of the truth.

Here at Deep South Media, run by a seven-strong team of professionally qualified journalists familiar with the sharp end of reporting, we would advocate openness and transparency in any similar corporate situation.

The truth is unconquerable. May it always be thus.

* For Mary Barra’s full speech in The Detroit News, please click here.