Is Decisiveness Really Leadership?

By all accounts 2016 presidential candidate Carly Fiorina has little to show for her twenty-four year business career. There is little evidence of any vestige of organic company building, the development of competent successors, the long term beneficial management of human capital, the launch of significant products or services, or even the improvement of profitability. Her tenure as a corporate ladder climber and then top executive has all the hallmarks of a professional corporate manager—the accumulation of significant personal wealth at expense of every other stakeholder. It is a tough resume to brag about—a fact that, other than the reality she is a strident conservative in a largely liberal state, led to her landslide loss to Barbara Boxer in the 2010 U.S. Senate race in California.

But Carly Fiorina disagrees with her critics of her corporate record. She is, in her mind, the consummate decisive decision maker. She makes the tough decisions that no one wants to make but have to be made. In fact as part of her natural proclivity to control the public narrative about her, she wrote a book in 2007 titled Tough Choices. The well-received memoir (it was a New York Times bestseller and holds a four star review rating in Amazon) extolled the virtues of decisiveness, downplayed her critics and the many negative outcomes of of her choices, and scripted a Cinderella-like mailroom-to-CEO discussion of her career.

She doubled down this narrative by releasing, in conjunction with her U.S. presidential campaign, the book Rising to the Challenge: My Leadership Journey. Her message: not only did she make Tough Choices in her career, but because she was willing to make Tough Choices, she manifested a successful Leadership Journey.

But is decisiveness really leadership?

In the military indecisive officers ends up killing their own soldiers. Decisiveness wins battles, because decisive officers can capitalize on their military training to take appropriate tactical and strategic steps on the battlefield. Thus officers fortified with the one-two punch of experience and decisiveness are notoriously difficult to defeat.

Still decisiveness, while quite important, is often not what really makes a military officer successful. Attention to concepts like the loyalty of the officer’s soldiers, the importance of logistics, the need for sustainable successes, and the avoidance of needless casualties are often critical elements that need to be paired with decisiveness. Thus leadership without attention to the welfare of the soldiers or on constructive outcomes is merely management, and management without attention to the details of running a military organization is merely ruthlessness. Ruthless officers are usually defeated by better battlefield managers, and battlefield managers are usually defeated by better battlefield leaders.

How does the military analogy fare in comparison to the business world? It fares well enough. Business leaders are paradigm shifters that achieve real business results while improving the welfare of all stakeholders. Managers who lack leadership qualities can still marshal well established businesses through trying economic times and capitalize on well-defined opportunities, perhaps at the expense of a percentage of some stakeholders. And ruthless executives who lack leadership or management skills can get things done through decisiveness, but usually at the expense of most stakeholders.

Politicians by their very nature are usually ruthless and decisive. By that measure Fiorina should be a good politician. She is also smart, charismatic, well-spoken, resourceful, and possesses an excellent memory–virtues that have done much to overcome her lack of real business success as well as her diminutive and pedestrian appearance.

But will a politician without leadership qualities who is a Washington outsider make a good president? I have my doubts. Nevertheless in a broad field of candidates who all have substantial shortcomings, Carly Fiorina’s own shortcomings may not matter.

5/15/2017 – Update: Fiorina exited the race on 2/10/16 and endorsed Ted Cruz on 3/9/17, who in turn announced her as his VP choice should he win the nomination. He did not. She currently lives in Virginia (not California) and is exploring a run for a U.S. Senate seat from that state.

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