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How Carly Fiorina Leaned In And Won The GOP Debate

Fiorina’s leadership style, honed through years of corporate climbing, were evident in her measured performance in the September 16 debate.

How Carly Fiorina Leaned In And Won The GOP Debate
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It’s not hard to see why some called last night’s GOP debate a free-for-all: Eleven Republican presidential hopefuls spent three hours covering topics ranging from immigration to national security, same-sex rights to abortion, marijuana to climate change, with plenty of personal jabs.

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Donald Trump may have led the polls coming into the CNN-hosted debate, but many pundits agree that former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina stole more than a bit of the billionaire’s thunder to dominate the floor.

Fiorina’s unflinching demeanor and carefully calculated comebacks shouldn’t surprise anyone. As Fortune’s 1998 cover story stated:

To anyone with a sense of traditional career paths, Carly Fiorina’s chance of becoming the most powerful woman in American business would have seemed about as good as, well, a guy’s.

The article details Fiorina’s long climb from her first job as a receptionist to ascend the ranks in telecom and ultimately to be recruited as the first woman to take control of a Fortune 100 company, as CEO of HP. Given what we know about women being woefully underrepresented in telecom and tech, Fiorina was indoctrinated early in the ways of being the only woman in a room of men.

In Fiorina’s case, though her time at the helm led to her ouster, political adviser Fred Davis told Bloomberg, “She’s one of the most driven people I’ve ever met.” As such, Davis speculates that Fiorina’s “devastating” experience and “inglorious end to a spectacular career” may just have provided her enough motivation to lean in hard during the Republican debate. And Fast Company readers know how important failure is on the path to leadership. If nothing else, Fiorina’s learned how to be unpopular.

Leadership Stance

In the arc of dark suits, Fiorina stood out, but not only because she was wearing electric blue. She assumed the “power pose,” which Harvard researcher Amy Cuddy says has been found to raise testosterone and reduce the anxiety-producing hormone cortisol. She stood tall and placed her hands on both sides of the podium, which served to open up the space in her upper body and make her appear larger and in command (compared to Chris Christie’s slumped-forward leaning on the podium, for example).

The Warmth Factor

But Cuddy points out that while many politicians are great at displaying power with their body language, they lack the warmth factor, an element that women are scrutinized for even more closely than men. “People judge trustworthiness before competence. They make inferences of trustworthiness and warmth before competence and power,” Cuddy said in an interview. “You have to connect with people and build trust before you can influence or lead them.”

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Fiorina didn’t smile much, but she did try to convey warmth, or at least connection, through words. In her introduction, she told the audience of her and her husband’s humble beginnings and the loss of a stepdaughter to addiction in an effort to show that despite her millionaire CEO status, she was just one of them.

Calculated Toughness

That was about as warm and fuzzy as Fiorina would allow herself to get. She hammered back against Trump’s foreign policy plan to “get along with Putin and others” with a short list of action items to beef up America’s military presence. The logistics of Fiorina’s plan notwithstanding, her response was calculated to sound tough and ready to fight America’s enemies if necessary.

Speaking Up And Staying Silent

One of Fiorina’s shining moments came when she squared off against Donald Trump when moderator Jake Tapper asked her to respond to Trump’s comment about her appearance. A quiet and measured, “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” was her reply. She followed up with a straight-faced silence during his red-faced and smiling rebuttal, “I think she’s got a beautiful face and I think she’s a beautiful woman.” Fiorina’s strategic delay “adds weight and wisdom,” according to leadership experts. Her calm and measured reaction also put her in contrast to Trump’s over-the-top expressions and other candidates’ tripping over their words.

But Fiorina also wasn’t shy about interjecting. As with any debate, there were many interruptions, and while several studies have shown that men frequently interrupt women, she appeared to speak over other candidates at times, as well as politely wait for her turn. She also notably referred to each candidate with a courtesy title (such as Mr. Trump), while many of the other candidates casually called each other by their first names.

At every turn, she played by the rules that women are told it takes to be heard in a business setting, staying firm without being mean or getting angry. For example, she alerted the audience to Trump’s bankruptcies and failures after listening to him claim success—without stooping to insults. She later told MSNBC that she was listening carefully for openings that would allow her to insert her political stance on issues.

Fiorina said in the same MSNBC interview this morning: “I hope what people saw last night is that I can win this job and I can do this job.” Amy Cuddy believes that leaders should use their time onstage to show the audience they care. “That does not equal “dominant” or “alpha.” You want to feel that you have the power to bring your full, spirited self to the situation,” she says. Fiorina did exactly that.

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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