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Carly Fiorina’s Leadership at Hewlett-Packard Company Essay



This paper will provide a critical review of the article on the rise and fall of Carly Fiorina. The review will focus on the leadership style of Carly during her tenure as the CEO of HP in the US. In this respect, the first part of the paper will compare the traits of Carly to the characteristics described in various leadership theories. The second part will contrast Carly’s traits and motives with various theoretical perspectives. The last part will provide explanations concerning the way leadership has been displayed in the article. Conclusions will be made based on the assessment of Carly’s leadership style.

Carly’s Traits and Motives


In the article, Carly has been portrayed as a leader whose characteristics are mainly inconsistent with the conventional theoretical perspectives on leadership. Carly was hired because the board believed that she was a charismatic leader. An effective charismatic leader is expected to have a clear vision for her organization. The vision enables the leader to inspire her followers to embrace change in order to achieve predetermined targets or objectives (Bell 2013, pp. 66-74).

Carly was described as a leader who was good at creating and selling her vision. This trait enabled her to take challenging assignments at AT&T, thereby becoming the most successful marketer in her industry. She was able to inspire her marketing managers to achieve their sales targets. At HP, Carly’s vision was to bring the desired change in the company’s organizational culture and financial performance. However, her vision did not yield the desired performance outcomes.

According to Monahan (2012, pp. 56-66), an ethical leader is expected to be fair and socially responsible. This means that the leader’s actions and decisions should take into account the needs of the followers. Carly’s first cost-cutting measure seemed to be fair. She allowed the employees to accept voluntary pay cuts rather than forcing them to leave the company. The high compliance level suggests that the majority of the employees supported her decision. In addition, she led by example by giving up bonus pay worth $625,000. In this context, Carly can be viewed as an ethical leader who focused on the interest of the company rather than her personal needs (Cumbo 2009, pp. 725-726).


Although Carly was considered to have charisma, her traits were significantly inconsistent with charismatic and other styles of leadership. First, she lacked key charismatic traits such as good communication skills. One of the major concerns of the employees was Carly’s poor communication and implementation of decisions. She once interrupted a manager’s presentation. In addition, workers often booed her during official meetings. By contrast, an effective charismatic leader listens to his/ her followers (Bell 2013, pp. 66-74). The leader uses emotional appeals in her speech to inspire followers rather than to create tensions and resistance.

Although Carly was aware of the dissent among the employees, she did not do much to manage follower impression. In addition, she did not take advantage of the economic downturn and its impact on the company (situational context) to demonstrate her leadership ability. Conceptually, she was expected to motivate employees to develop creative and innovative ways of improving performance rather than forcing them to achieve unrealistic targets. These behaviors are inconsistent with the theory of charismatic leadership.

Second, an ethical leader should have respect for others by treating her followers with dignity. The leader should consider the followers to be ends in themselves rather than a means to achieve her personal ends. In this regard, showing respect involves recognizing the goals and ambitions of the followers, as well as, their importance in the organization (Oates & Dalmau 2013, pp. 18-28). This enables the leader to listen actively, show empathy, and appreciate divergent opinions.

However, Carly did not have respect for others. She focused on a top-down leadership style, thereby ignoring the views of her employees and the board. Her focus on financial performance rather than nurturing employees indicates that she used her followers as a means to achieve her objectives. According to Burns’ transformational leadership theory, a good leader is expected to help her followers to maintain high ethical standards when they are facing conflicts. However, Carly actually promoted unethical behaviors at HP by failing to stop her sales team from encouraging customers to buy more than they needed.

Third, ethical leadership requires leaders to serve their followers. This means that the leader is required to behave in an altruistic manner rather than demonstrating ethical egoism. Serving the followers involves engaging in behaviors such as mentoring, empowering, and building strong teams (Bell 2013, pp. 66-74). Contrary to this perspective, Carly believed that she had to be served by the followers.

Instead of being considered a mentor, the employees considered Carly an enemy who they did not want to identify with. Her decision to restructure the company by reducing the number of operating units shows that she was not interested in empowering others to lead the organization. A charismatic leader demonstrates her expertise by delegating tasks and authority to her followers (Bell 2013, pp. 66-74). Similarly, a transformational leader is expected to share power with the followers in order to achieve a shared goal. However, Carly believed in retaining power and control over the company.

Integrity and trust are important traits that leaders need in order to succeed. An ethical leader has to be honest in order to earn the trust of her followers (King 2008, pp. 80-82). In this respect, leaders should not avoid accountability, misrepresent, and promise what they cannot deliver. In addition, the leader has to maintain high standards of integrity to earn the trust of the followers. This involves demonstrating “loyalty, dedication to purpose, social justice, humility, and strength of character” (King 2008, pp. 80-82).

The main responsibility of the leader is to promote empathy, trust, and tolerance at the workplace. One of the major causes of Carly’s fall was her failure to earn the trust of her followers. For instance, the shareholders could not trust her since she never achieved the financial targets that she promised to deliver. This was exacerbated by the fact that Carly preferred to blame others rather than taking responsibility for the company’s poor performance.

In addition, Carly failed to show humility during her tenure as the CEO. This was demonstrated by her refusal to hire a chief operating officer (COO) to assist her to manage the company. Instead of appreciating the values of the employees and inspiring them to change gradually, Carly simply rejected the company’s organizational culture and decided to dismiss those who supported it. These behaviors indicate that Carly could not be trusted by her followers. Thus, she cannot be considered an ethical leader.

Finally, justice and fairness should always be reflected in the decisions made by ethical leaders (Oates & Dalmau 2013, pp. 18-28). Ethical leaders promote transparency and equal treatment of followers across the board. However, Carly failed to ensure justice and fairness in most of her decisions. To begin with, she replaced the profit-sharing plan with bonuses that were awarded to all employees only if the company achieved its financial targets.

This means that those who achieved their individual targets would not be rewarded as long as the company did not meet its targets. Besides, the employees were to forego their share of the company’s profits. During the layoffs, Carly reduced the workforce without taking into account the performance of the employees. As a result, high performers who were supposed to be retained lost their jobs. Clearly, Carly was punishing high performers instead of rewarding them. This shows that she lacked concern for others and failed to promote justice.

Display of leadership

Ethical leadership is displayed in the article as a process where the leader has to be both a moral person and a moral manager. As a moral person, an ethical leader is expected to be principled, empathetic, and able to make fair decisions.

Carly has been classified as an ethically neutral leader who did not directly promote unethical behaviors. Nonetheless, she lacked an ethical character. Leaders develop ethical character when they experience “personal trauma, career setbacks, mistakes, and failures” (Frank 2002, pp. 80-82). In particular, the leader is expected to examine her inner self during a crisis in order to develop a strong character. Carly made several mistakes and failed to achieve her performance targets. However, she did not reexamine her decisions and actions in order to develop an ethical character.

As an ethical manager, the leader has to encourage followers to engage in ethical behaviors. Marcy, Gentry, and McKinnon (2008, pp. 3-7) argue that leaders normally fail to encourage ethical behavior among followers if what they say is inconsistent with what they do. Any disconnect between what the leader promises and what they deliver or do creates ethical dilemmas that limit followers’ ability to behave ethically (Moreno 2010, pp. 97-108).

In this respect, Carly failed as an ethical manager because of her inability to keep her promises. Furthermore, she did not take any deliberate measures to prevent unethical practices in the company. The board of directors, on the other hand, failed as both ethical persons and ethical managers. The members of the board focused on achieving their personal goals, thereby failing as ethical persons. In addition, they failed as ethical managers because of their inability to uphold the company’s values and principles, as well as, to perform their oversight duties effectively.


Carly failed as a leader because most of her characteristics and actions were inconsistent with the conventional leadership theories and practices. Her only strength was the ability to create and sell a clear vision. Although Carly was considered a charismatic leader, she lacked essential traits such as good communication skills, trust, and the ability to delegate authority. In addition, she lacked humility, compassion, and integrity. Consequently, she failed to behave as a moral person. Carly promoted unethical behaviors at HP by failing to take action to prevent them. In this respect, she failed to demonstrate the traits of a moral manager and a transformational leader.


Bell, M 2013, ‘Charismatic leadership case study with Ronald Reagan as exemplar’, Emerging Leadership Journeys, vol. 6. no. 1, pp. 66-74.

Cumbo, J 2009, ‘Ethical leadership: the quest for character, civility, and community’, Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, vol. 47. no. 4, pp. 725-726.

Frank, G 2002, ‘Meeting the ethical challenges of leadership’, Journal of Academic Librarianship, vol. 28. no. 2, pp. 80-82.

King, M 2008, ‘Practical reasoning and ethical decision’, Ethics, vol. 118. no. 4, pp. 717-721.

Marcy, R, Gentry, A & McKinnon, R 2008, ‘Thinking straight: new strategies are needed for ethical leadership’, Leadership in Action, vol. 28. no. 3, pp. 3-7.

Monahan, K 2012, ‘A review of the literature concerning ethical leadership in organizations’, Emerging Leadership Journeys, vol. 5. no. 1, pp. 56-66.

Moreno, M 2010, ‘An approach to ethical communication from the point of view of management responsibilities’, Journal of Applied Ethics, vol. 1. no. 1, pp. 97-108.

Oates, V & Dalmau, T 2013, ‘Ethical leadership: a legacy for a stronger future’, Performance, vol. 5. no. 2, pp. 18-28.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "Carly Fiorina's Leadership at Hewlett-Packard Company." April 2, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/carly-fiorinas-leadership-at-hewlett-packard-company/.


IvyPanda. (2021) 'Carly Fiorina's Leadership at Hewlett-Packard Company'. 2 April.

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