The 2016 Race: Five Things That Impress Me About Carly Fiorina

Hillary Clinton gave a major campaign-kickoff speech in New York City over the weekend. Given all the press coverage she continues to receive, you’d think she was the only woman in the 2016 presidential race. She’s not.

Another accomplished woman is also running: Carly Fiorina. And she, too, was in the news – for leading a run up a mountain in Deer Valley, Utah, during Mitt Romney’s annual E2 Summit. I spent part of the weekend in attendance. There were entrepreneurs, executives, Democrats – and, yes, half a dozen of the current Republican candidates. I’m here to tell you Fiorina deserves a lot more attention than she’s getting.

I’ve long been impressed with the women executives I work with and the women MBA students I teach. They’re every bit as smart, tough, decisive and wise as the men, and sometimes more so. As I’ve noted in another post, about gender equity, women are the equals of men – and wise institutions treat them that way.

Clinton strikes me as unrepresentative of the extraordinary spirit I’ve observed not only in women executives and students but also in the women in my own family who’ve inspired and enriched my life. The notion of fighting societal problems by pitting one group of people against another struck me as oddly anachronistic for someone seeking to be a 21st-century leader.

Seeing the world through a zero-sum lens misses the lessons of the information revolution we’re now living through. Born of Silicon Valley and other technological Edens, what we’re experiencing today will more transform our world than even the Industrial Revolution did in 19th-century agrarian society. Thus, leaders in both parties need to be less wedded to their own outdated worldviews and do less catering to entrenched interest groups. We need leaders who understand second- and third-order consequences – who can think outside the box rather than simply fight over the limited supplies that go into it.

Consider, for example, the transformative effects that the Kahn Academy is having on education. Its thousands of elegant, ingenious 10-minute online tutorials are helping kids all over the world master subjects at their own pace. Its mission – “A Free, World-Class Education for Anyone, Anywhere” – is changing lives. The academy’s founder and leader, Sal Khan, spoke at E2 over the weekend – perhaps someday he’ll be electoral timber.

Khan embodies the future. By contrast, if the educational challenges of our time are seen chiefly as how to maintain the power of teachers’ unions – the better to bankroll the campaigns of politicians – America will stay the current course. The nation will be stuck in 27th place in science and 24th in math among the top 30 developed nations. But if we were to put our children first, we could bring Kahn Academy-like technological innovation to the problems of educating people for the modern global marketplace. The past will always pull against the disruptions demanded by the future. And yet it is a certain brand of hypocritical politician who nonetheless claims most loudly to embrace change.

It is along these lines that I’ve been intrigued by Fiorina, the former CEO and chairwoman of tech giant Hewlett-Packard. She surely has liabilities: no experience as an elected official, missteps as the unsuccessful GOP candidate for a California Senate seat in 2010, and a controversial six-year tenure at HP. Though I’m far from endorsing any candidate, I think Fiorina offers five contrasts with Clinton that are worth noting at this stage of the presidential race:

  • She’s accessible. She responds to questions. She’s direct, articulate, frank. I saw that myself at Stanford and just this past weekend. I want my leaders to proudly run straight ahead – I’m not a fan of tap-dancing.
  • Though she’s fearless and candid, she has a sense of herself, as well as a sense of humor. My hunch is that’s partly a function of her rough ride at HP. Part of it is the wisdom of experience. In any turnaround in which I’ve been involved, the need is for less spin, more truth. Our country could use some turnaround.
  • She’s been the CEO of a huge company. Whatever her mistakes at HP – and in some ways she was unfairly faulted for trying to modernize a moribund Valley institution that continues to struggle – Fiorina has that experience. It will only help her in future leadership roles, as well as in understanding American business and the worldwide economy.
  • She demonstrates a quality I admire in executives: an uncanny ability to build consensus, to bring people along who may start out seeing things differently.
  • She’s more problem-solver than platitude-deliverer. She breaks problems down into bite-sized projects, even as she keeps her eye on the long-term.

So, when my friends – men and women – celebrate the potential for a female president, I join them. But I remind them  there’s another credible woman in the race. And 17 months away from the election, amid a crowded GOP field, we ought to be listening more to a talented candidate with smarts and skills quite different from those of the others.

By Joel Peterson