General Motors’ former CEO Rick Wagoner was undoubtedly the Sisyphus of the auto industry.
Sisyphus is the Greek mythological fellow whom the gods punished by making him endlessly push a boulder up a hill, only to lose his footing each time and watch the thing tumble back down.
I always felt sorry for Sisyphus, and for Wagoner, for that matter.
I sense Wagoner’s biggest liability was his amicability. He was a smart man, driven, but his soft leadership style failed to get GM out of its complicated web of problems.
And while poor Sisyphus’ fate was for eternity, Wagoner’s frustration lasted nine years until he was forced to resign by the Obama administration on March 30, 2009, in the run-up to GM’s bankruptcy filing.
I covered GM for Automotive News for four years, up through its bankruptcy. I interviewed Wagoner dozens of times. Yet he remained an enigma. I saw him as an introvert stuck in an extrovert’s job. He was uncomfortable in the spotlight.
Wagoner was charged with leading GM into its second century. From his office on the 39th floor of GM’s Detroit headquarters overlooking the Detroit River, Wagoner rarely issued direct orders, said those who worked closely with him.
He opted for studies, discussions — asking questions and seeking solutions.
“Rick tends to have a firm agenda, which he furthers by suggestion, suasion and insightful questions,” former GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz said in a past interview with Automotive News. “Rarely does he take command and tell his subordinates what to do.”
Wagoner led in a polite, understated way, which was reflective of his personality.
That made him a nice guy, but it did not get the boulder up the hill.