But Wagoner is now a high-profile casualty of government intervention, forced out as part of the Obama administration's sweeping last-ditch effort to save the century-old auto giant.
Wagoner, 56, who spent 32 years with GM working all over the world, stepped down effective immediately, the company said in a statement early Monday. He was replaced as CEO by Fritz Henderson, the company's vice chairman and chief operating officer.
GM board member Kent Kresa, a former chairman and CEO of Northrop Grumman Corp., was named interim chairman and said new directors will make up the majority of GM's board when a new slate is nominated for election at the company's annual meeting in August.
"The board has recognized for some time that the company's restructuring will likely cause a significant change in the stockholders of the company and create the need for new directors with additional skills and experience," Kresa said in a written statement.
GM shares tumbled 96 cents, or 26.5 percent, to $2.66 in morning trading Monday. That is down 89 percent from their 52-week high of $24.24 on April 30, 2008.
The management shake-up, according to several industry analysts, shows that the administration is serious about forcing GM to change more quickly and dramatically than it did during Wagoner's nearly nine-year tenure as CEO.
Jeremy Anwyl, chief executive of the automotive Web site Edmunds.com, called the move "political theater" to appease an increasingly bailout-weary public.