While pundits endlessly debate Carly Fiorina’s record at Hewlett-Packard — how much of the stock price decline during her tenure was her fault; was the Compaq merger, about to be undone in the impending split of the company, smart or dumb; how much did H-P really increase its sales and inventiveness during her reign, and so forth — there’s one thing no one should question: Fiorina has mastered some important lessons in leadership, lessons relevant for anyone.
Here are four things that anyone, running for president or not, can and should do:
Number one, tell your story. If you won’t, no one else will. By telling your story repeatedly, you can construct your own narrative. When Fiorina was fired and left H-P, The New York Times reported that her exit brought her $42 million. That figure soon became widely reported in the media as a $42 million severance. Fiorina vigorously rebutted the amount, noting that it included restricted stock she had earned, pension benefits and stock options, compensation that would not normally be considered “severance.”
Moreover, even before the current campaign, Fiorina wrote an autobiography to provide her account of her many successes as a business executive. Of course, she cherry-picked data to present her track record in the most favorable light. But that is something everyone can and should do: Highlight those parts of job performance where you shine, and ignore or downplay weak results.
Second, Fiorina has and is building a brand — a public presence. Recognizable brands have real economic value. Sarah Palin went from being mayor of a small town in Alaska to being governor to taking in a reported $12 million by becoming a well-known public figure. Running for president, even if unsuccessful, transforms people into public figures often widely sought on the speaking circuit, so in many ways, they win even if they lose. Everyone can and should build a public brand because no one is going to get picked for a job, promoted, or be accorded other opportunities if others don’t know them. So build your own visibility — by blogging, publishing articles, giving talks, becoming active in civic organizations. Visibility doesn’t correlate perfectly with earnings capacity or being hired for a great job, but it helps.
Third, don’t worry about being liked — Fiorina doesn’t. In an oft-told story of being subjected to sexist comments — including being called a token bimbo — Fiorina decided she would not tolerate being disrespected, regardless of the consequences. Much like Condoleezza Rice, who told one protégé, “people may oppose you, but when they realize you can hurt them, they’ll join your side,” Fiorina is more concerned with being feared and respected. In that choice, Fiorina is following the wisdom of Machiavelli, who noted that while it was wonderful to be feared and loved, if you had to choose one, being feared was safer than being loved.
The fourth lesson taken from watching Fiorina may be the most important. As we struggle with understanding what makes leaders “successful,” people frequently overlook the fact that success depends very much on how that term gets defined and measured. In business and in politics, the interests of leaders and their organizations don’t perfectly coincide.
At Hewlett-Packard, Fiorina was well-known for not tolerating dissent or disagreement, particularly on important strategic issues. As someone quite senior in H-P’s strategy group told me, disagreeing with Fiorina in a meeting was a reasonably sure path out the door. By not brooking dissent, Fiorina ensured that few opponents would be around to challenge her power. But disagreement often surfaces different perspectives that result in better decisions. The famous business leader Alfred P. Sloan noted that if everyone was in agreement, the discussion should be postponed until people could ascertain the weaknesses in the proposed choice.
Self-promotion, brand-building, worrying more about being respected or even feared, and taking care of oneself seem inconsistent with the typical leadership prescriptions — and they are.
As I note in “Leadership BS,” discussions of leadership often focus more on aspirations than realities, on what we would like to believe rather than what is, and on inspiration rather than social science. No wonder so many people suffer career derailments. Fiorina has a pragmatic view of what it takes to be successful. And that’s one reason she should not be underestimated, regardless of the opinions about her career at H-P.