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Thoughts on Carly Fiorina

The latest news in the GOP presidential free-for-all is that Carly Fiorina is (almost, maybe) jumping into the mosh-pit. She’s an interesting character and worth a posting.

First, she’s having fun these days slamming Hillary. Of course, that doesn’t make her special; everybody on the right (and, indeed, quite a few on the left) is slamming Hillary. Carly does make the interesting observation that, as a woman, she can slam Hillary for everything but being a woman. And, as she likes to note, her dissing of Hillary is more effective because it can’t be seen as just anti-woman or anti-feminist rhetoric.

Second, she’s touting her business background, typically having herself introduced as the former CEO of one of America’s great high-tech computer firms. Indeed, this is true. She was the CEO of Hewlett-Packard and before that was a senior executive with Lucent, an AT&T spinoff. What she usually leaves off the rosy picture of being the first woman to head a Fortune 20 company is that she also became the first woman to seriously undermine the financial well-being of a Fortune 20 company.

Her five plus years with HP were, to put it mildly, rocky. She alienated others, earned a reputation for rarely consulting with advisors and pushing aggressively for her positions while undercutting anyone who opposed her

Things came to a head when she maneuvered HP into purchasing Compaq — a deal that proved to be, in a word, terrible. She had to override the vigorous objections of Walter Hewlett, son of the founder, who thought (correctly as it turns out) that this was, indeed, a terrible decision.

Another, equally bad idea, luckily got sidetracked. She pushed HP to acquire the technology component of PricewaterhouseCoopers for $14 billion but the board demurred when Wall Street gurus took a dim view of the deal. They were right; after the dotcom bubble burst, it sold for a mere $4 billion. Had she gotten her way she almost certainly would have bankrupted HP — a $10 billion hit is hard to overcome.

But in the end the board sacked her. The general consensus is that she may have been the first woman to head a company like HP but she didn’t do a very good job. She’s been dubbed the “anti-Steve Jobs” and one of the worst CEO’s to ever run a company of this size. Oh, in case you’re curious, her “golden parachute” for having nearly trashed HP was 20 million coconuts.

But Ms. Fiorina is, if nothing else, persistent. Touting herself, of course, as the first woman to head up a major company she hurled herself into Republican politics. She joined McCain’s campaign in ‘08 and was one of Sarah Palin’s most vigorous defenders. In 2010 she ran for the Senate in California against Barbara Boxer and lost by 10 points which, given her dismal record and total lack of experience, wasn’t bad at all. Though it should be noted that she so screwed up her campaign finances that they ended up several million dollars in the hole. Fiorina apparently covered the debts — piece of cake after that severance gift. It also didn’t help when it was revealed that, before jumping into the race, she had rarely bothered to even vote.

So, what’s behind this woman with the glittering facade, the well-honed public persona and the rather stunning lack of actual accomplishments that would make you think she’s presidential timber and a worthy opponent for Hill?

Good question, glad you asked!

I’ve known quite a few Carlys. They are common in business and, perhaps surprisingly, in academia, particularly university administration. But no matter where they pop up they have a cluster of characteristics that mark them.

They are smart in a generic sort of way, often breathtakingly so. They are usually good looking, athletic and move with grace. They also have strong opinions which they put forward with passion and commitment. They have supreme confidence, are articulate and well-spoken and quick on their feet. The brutal truth is that in order to succeed in domains like academic administration, the upper echelons of the corporate world and high-end politics you must be able to put forward your points of view persuasively, convincingly and unwaveringly.

Now, in some ways this profile sounds like what we’d look for in the ideal leader, the very kind of individual we want to run major corporations, head up Tier I research universities, rise to the top of the military, the government. But there’s another element here, one that causes the crash and burn we saw with Fiorina and what I’ve witnessed all too many times in my career: narcissism.

Effective leaders need to take nuanced stances; they cannot be inflexibly tied to their ideas. Narcissists are. The best leaders are also excellent followers. They know when they’re not the most knowledgeable in some area or on some issue and are willing to accept the input of those who are. Narcissists cannot take this side-step. The effective leaders are strong enough to accept criticism and secure enough to see when their original thoughts or ideas may not be the best way to go. Narcissists find it almost impossible to do this.

Despite all the shiny surfaces, the polished veneer, underneath is insecurity and it is masked by bravado, blustering and inflexibility. When narcissists end up actually running a company, heading a university, chairing a committee they fall back on the standard operating procedures: “kiss my butt or get off my planet.”

In my experience such individuals invariably end up being sacked by the board of the company, the university or assigned to the back bench within their political party.

A story: Back when I was in the CUNY system (CUNY stands for City University of New York, the nation’s largest urban, public university) we had a Chancellor who was a classic narcissist. She came in full of ideas. She was a brilliant speaker, passionate about education, research and outreach to the community. She blew us all away when she arrived and we all, basically, signed on to help her achieve our mutual goals.

But soon cracks began to appear. She bristled when the slightest suggestion was made that some project she had in mind just might not work here in an urban, commuter university. Tales of meetings of the council of college presidents began to circulate and they were not happy ones. Deans and other administrators with long tenure in their posts and strong records of effective leadership suddenly found themselves relieved of their duties. In a surprisingly short period of time she had few supporters and many enemies. The backroom sniping was getting louder and louder.

Eventually the board of trustees stepped in and sacked her — and we all breathed a sigh of relief. Remarkably, she was soon offered the Chancellorship of a major state university system in _____ (I’m leaving this blank to protect the innocent).

CUNY’s Board appointed an interim Chancellor who just happened to be an old friend of mine. I stopped by his office to congratulate him. We were talking about his new job when his administrative assistant stepped in holding a cordless phone. “It’s the University of ____ on the line,” she said. “The chairman of the board wants to know how in hell we dealt with her.” We just laughed and went out to lunch.


Reader Comments (1)

>> California against Barbara Boxer and lost by 10 points which, given her dismal record and total lack of experience, wasn’t bad at all.

Ugh, so - Schwarzenegger won ... are you calling that good. Why is it that Republicans do not seem to get that what Republicans say and what they do when in office are completely different, and that you cannot trust the brand of Republican. By this comment I do not mean you can trust the brand of Democrat, but Republicans are more likely to act by faith and brand, whereas Democrats are disorganized, and not likely to act at all most often. The big changes to this country in the last 20 year ... forgetting the big changes 30 years before that have all been Republican.

The last thing the government did to help the country was bad in FDR's time, and it worked. Somewhere we took a giant misstep. It's not simple, but I've heard and followed Carly Florina and I do not think she was good for business at HP, nor do I think she'd be good in politics.

March 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBP Kline

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