How to Buck the System the Right Way

One reason that General Motors might be on the right track to becoming a viable business once again may be the result of something its former CEO, Fritz Henderson, did before he was sacked.

One reason that General Motors might be on the right track to becoming a viable business once again may be the result of something its former CEO, Fritz Henderson, did before he was sacked. Last year, according to an article in BusinessWeek, CEO Fritz Henderson asked consulting firm, Booz & Co., to help department chiefs identify middle managers who are not averse to taking risks. Not surprisingly, most of candidates identified were not high powered executives or those on the “fast track.” Rather these folks were often maverick types who know how to get things done by manipulating the system in order to get things done right.


What GM is doing is mining the talent of its leaders in the middle. To lead up effectively, there are three characteristics you need to leverage.

Credibility. You must know your stuff especially when you are not the one in charge. When you are seeking to make a case to senior manager, or even to colleagues, what you know must be grounded in reality. At the same time, so often, as is the case at GM, you need to be able to think and act differently. So your track record reinforces your credibility. That is, what you have done before gives credence to what you want to do in the future.

Influence. Knowing how to persuade others is critical for someone seeking to effect change. If you do not have line authority, how else but through influence can you succeed? Your influence is based on credibility, but also on your proven ability to get things done. Sometimes persuasion comes down to an ability to sweet talk the higher ups as well as put a bit of muscle on colleagues (nicely of course) in order push your initiative through.

Respect. Mavericks, which GM said it was looking for, may not always be the most easiest people to get along with on a daily basis. After all, they are ones seeking to buck the system. But mavericks who succeed are ones who have the best interests of the organization at heart and in time earn the respect of thier colleagues.

One maverick I know who has been pushing to change the way the U.S. Army trains and promotes its officer corps is Don Vandergriff. A former Army major and twice named ROTC instructor of the year while at Georgetown, Vandergriff has tirelessly badgered the Army’s senior leadership to institute changes that would recognize and promote officers who knew how to lead from the middle.

And now, after more than a decade of his writing and teaching, it is paying off. West Point has become the latest but perhaps the most prestigious Army institution to teach principles of adaptive decision making that Don developed. Many of Don’s students have implemented such lessons successfully under combat situations in Iraq and Afghanistan.


There are no guarantees that effective leadership from the middle will save a dying enterprise. After all, aside from such super achievers, there are a great many other people who are incompetent, ones who through neglect or ignorance or both allowed the company to drift into mediocrity and failure. Such people are typically not the kind of folks who know how to mastermind a turnaround.

Savvy leaders in middle management, however, are essential for a turnaround, but speaking more broadly are responsible for successful companies overall. Senior leaders are seldom the ones doing the real work; that falls to men and women who by dint of diligence and intelligence translate the strategies into tactics and follow through on them to keep enterprise afloat. As such it is good practice, as GM is doing, to identify such people and learn from them so that they can teach others how to think and act creatively for the good of all.


John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership development consultant, executive coach, author, and speaker. In 2010 Top Leadership Gurus named John one of the world’s top 25 leadership experts. John’s newest book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up (Amacom 2009). Readers are welcome to visit John’s website,