As sad as it is for America, and particularly for General Motors employees and owners of GM vehicles, GM really has it coming! The once-leader of the worldwide automotive industry ignored all of the signs of corporate decline for decades, substituting its legendary arrogance and stubbornness for vitally-needed changes in its structure and operations. Even Michael Moore´s pioneering film Roger and Me, which portrayed how General Motors had destroyed Flint, Michigan by its policies and practices, was dismissed by GM as the irrelevant rantings of a crank.
After growing up in a General Motors city, Dayton, Ohio, I served as the first chair of the business division of Dayton´s new Wright State University in the early 1960s. One of my first moves was to establish an advisory council of area business executives including such local GM divisions as Inland Manufacturing, Delco-Moraine, and Frigidaire. As we got to know each other, I expressed concern, way back then, as to the illogic of having five competing automotive divisions, mostly competing with each other. I pointed out that the system of major annual model changes which GM had pioneered, and the Horsepower Race, were very wasteful of vehicle buyers´limited funds and our resources as well. Similar comments were made in appropriate management classes.
The result of these insightful comments about General Motors was a call from the Business Administration Dean of Wright State´s parent, Miami University of Ohio, which co-governed the new college along with Ohio State upon its founding. Dean Cawthorne told me to stop stirring things up with those GM executives, they were there for window dressing on our advisory committee, and raising issues about GM´s future was not to my career advantage. These and similar comments led me to switch to a position at nearby Antioch College.
But that experience also led me to study General Motors carefully over the intervening decades, while the seeds of disaster began to blossom, nourished by GM´s misplaced pride. I heard one CEO repeatedly state that what was good for General Motors was good for the country. When the first compact cars, all imports, began to sell significantly in the U.S., I recall another GM leader stating that, by God, if GM ever had to build a compact car, it would be the biggest compact car in the world. They just never really got the point that the world was changing in ways which were not to GM´s advantage.
That kind of arrogance outlived its usefulness decades before the decline and fall of General Motors which is occurring now. The handwriting has been on the wall for so long that it even started to fade, allowing GM to remain convinced of its own invulnerability even after Toyota, Honda, and the other major world automakers were taking over its traditional markets. Instead of dropping several divisions, not just Oldsmobile, a few years back, consolidating others, and selling off those which were obviously becoming unprofitable, GM continued to substitute arrogance and bluster for sound business decisions. The company simply could not believe what was happening.
Now, though, General Motors has no choice but to finally accept its own downfall. The ancient Greeks would have called this the result of hubris, or unwarranted pride and arrogance. The real tragedy here is that so many innocent people will also inevitably become victims of that downfall. GM should have listened to Michael Moore, and its other critics, while there was yet time. But then, had they done so, they wouldn´t have been General Motors. And that is the ultimate irony.