On the cold, sunny day when Rick Wagoner was publicly introduced as the new CEO of the world's largest automaker, he publicly belittled himself several times.
This can be good or bad. Amazingly, there are still some imperial General Motors executives who think they have all the answers. They, after all, are General Motors. Rick Wagoner, president and soon CEO, is not one of them. He is acutely aware of his human imperfections, and of GM's.
But he is now the undisputed leader of the largest industrial company on the planet. He represents that company to the world, and he has to inspire its nearly 400,000 GM employees to follow him into battle.
Will the self-deprecating ways of the nearly 47-year-old protege of Chairman Jack Smith serve him and the company well?
When Smith introduced Wagoner at last Wednesday's news conference, the younger man gave several insights into his own character:
Wagoner's opening remarks, in praise of Smith:
He gives us enough rope to learn, sometimes to almost hang ourselves. But he saves us before we get strung over the tree.
In response to why Smith is keeping the chairmanship:
He offers some great counsel. ... My counsel isn't also so great.
On why he loves the auto industry:
It's a great business. It's got great products. You run the range of the latest technology, which Harry [Vice Chairman Harry Pearce] has to explain to me a lot of the time.
On the promise and challenge of being GM:
Some would say we haven't been as successful - probably about the day Wagoner started, actually - as we were before.
Wagoner's refusal to make too much of himself extends to GM.
Rather than claiming a triumph at the recent Detroit auto show, he hedged his language in describing GM's new and upcoming products: I think the issue on product design we kind of spoke at the Detroit auto show. ... So hopefully we can get a lot of excitement from our consumers.
And later: We are going to keep driving what we think are very good new products to the marketplace.
Paradoxically, Wagoner's failure to reach grandiosity is a sign of his self-confidence. He is both smart and funny. He doesn't need to say nice things about himself because he knows he's good.
But he's about to be the undisputed leader of General Motors. Like the words of the president of the United States, his words can move mountains, or can fail to stir. GM needs stirring.
Rick Wagoner's confident but self-deprecating ways will need a jolt of inspiration if he is going to lead GM into a new period of success.
Peter Brown can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]