Carly Fiorina talks leadership, gender dynamics of running for office

Fiorina: “Everybody has more potential than they realize”

Carly Fiorina talks leadership, gender dynamics of running for office

Carly Fiorina, a former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and 2016 presidential candidate, speaks to students at American University.

Carly Fiorina, a 2016 Republican presidential candidate and former Hewlett-Packard CEO, came to AU last week to discuss leadership, character and her views on today’s political climate with students.

The April 5 event was hosted by the Kennedy Political Union, AU’s chapter of the Network of Enlightened Women, Graduate Leadership Council and College Republicans. The event began with a small student protest. Two students, who held posters opposing Fiorina’s appearance on campus, were later asked to leave by event coordinators and complied.

Fiorina began her lecture by responding to the protest and what she sees as society’s trend towards tribalism, or only associating with those who share the same political views.  

“What you see in our culture, accelerated by technology, is we cling to our tribes in cyberspace,” Fiorina said. “Obviously those two young women, they’re not really interested in dialogue.”

During her speech, Fiorina touched on her decision to quit law school after graduating with a degree in medieval history and philosophy from Stanford. Her first job was working as a secretary in a nine-person real estate office, she said. By exceeding expectations in the position, her bosses offered her more responsibilities.

“It changed my life because they saw possibilities in me,” she said. “And because they saw possibilities in me, I saw possibilities in myself that I didn’t know were there.”

She spoke about her core philosophy with the audience -- that power concentrated in a bureaucracy leads to abuse of power, and secondly, the people who often go unnoticed excel at their jobs and solve the problems that impact them if given the opportunity. Those people “can make a contribution to the problems that are right in front of them,” she said to the crowd.

“But what I’ve also learned is that everybody has more potential than they realize; I certainly did,” Fiorina said. “Everybody, everyone sitting here, you have more potential than you know. It’s also true that none of us achieve our full potential unless we are challenged.”

Leadership, she continued, is the “catalyst of all problem-solving.” But today’s politicians are not concerned with problem solving, she said.

“The salvation of our nation now is not looking to politicians to fix it, because I don’t think they are capable, honestly,” Fiorina said. “I think we as citizens have to model what we want our politicians to be, not the other way around.”

She urged students to solve problems in their communities and understand what it takes to be a leader, whether or not that leads them to a career in politics.

Following her remarks, Fiorina participated in a question and answer segment moderated by Anita McBride, former chief of staff for former First Lady Laura Bush and an executive-in-residence at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies in the School of Public Affairs.

To begin, Fiorina offered a piece of advice she always shares with parents of college students: get a job and excel in that position, because someone will notice.

“Don’t think it’s beneath you because whatever job you do, you’re going to learn a lot about yourself, you’re going to learn a lot about the people around you and the world around you, and you’re going to learn skills that will help you in the next job,” Fiorina said.

Fiorina was also asked about the gender dynamic of running for office. Women must prove they can do the job, she said, while men are normally given the “presumption of competence” off the bat.

“I am heartbroken by the fact that the appropriate treatment of women seems to have become a political matter,” she said.

In tune with the values she discussed earlier, Fiorina also emphasized the importance of working with people from different backgrounds.

“In order to collaborate effectively with people different than yourself, you must learn humility and empathy,” Fiorina said. “Sometimes people associate humility and empathy as feminine qualities. I think they’re human qualities.”

Fiorina briefly shared some details about her new organization, Unlocking Potential. The organization provides leadership development and training to non-profit organizations that are “trying to lift people up in our communities,” she said.

A final question from an audience member concerned her stance on gun control. Fiorina said she supports finding a  “common set of solutions.” She said two emails arrived in her inbox directly after the Parkland shooting -- both from political organizations on extreme sides of the debate. They both asked her to donate money to their cause.

“It’s a perfect example of politics taking us further from the solution,” she said.

Never miss a story

Get our weekly newsletter delivered right to your inbox.

More from The Eagle