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Carly Fiorina: 'Leaders look different. Leadership is always the same'

The former CEO of Hewlett-Packard said she has always dealt with comments about her looks, but it didn't stop her from leading and getting the job done.
"Morning Joe" co-host and Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski and former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Carly Fiorina.
"Morning Joe" co-host and Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski and former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Carly Fiorina.Anthony Scutro

What does leadership look like? If you ask Carly Fiorina, she’ll be quick to tell you it comes in all different shapes and sizes.

"Leaders look different. Leadership is always the same," Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, recently told Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski.

Fiorina has dealt with comments about her looks throughout her career, an issue she explores in her new book “Find Your Way: Unleash Your Power and Highest Potential.”

In perhaps the most high-profile example, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump notoriously spoke of his Republican presidential opponent to Rolling Stone in 2015: “Look at that face!" he said. "Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?"

Fiorina said she wasn’t surprised by Trump’s derogatory remarks.

“While my younger female staff was just shocked and appalled by his attack, initially I honestly laughed it off,” she said. “So many men have commented on my appearance in an effort to diminish me. Either they’ve said, ‘Wow, you’re way too good-looking to be a CEO’ or, ‘She doesn’t look like a president.’”

She gave other examples, like when a boss early in her career introduced her in a professional setting as “the token bimbo.” And when she was 26, a male colleague decided to hold a business meeting at a strip club to intimidate her.

What Fiorina did in that situation is applicable to many scenarios, she said: She wrote down what she was afraid of. In this case, she wrote that she feared she would look stupid or uncomfortable. Then she asked herself, what’s the worst thing that can happen? What’s the best thing?

The worst thing would be getting fired. And Fiorina knew that’s what would happen if she didn’t attend the meeting at the strip club. So she went.

“I realized, if I didn’t go then this guy has scared me out of my doing my job,” Fiorina said. “The fear … that I would look like an idiot — I did. But when I got back to the office everything had changed. The gentleman’s colleagues were saying, what a slimeball.”

The colleagues also had a new opinion of Fiorina. “They were looking at me, going, ‘OK, she’s tough. She’s got some moxie.'"

In the end, Fiorina became a close colleague and eventual business partner of the man who set up the strip-club meeting. They never discussed the incident, but Fiorina realized he was scared she would take his job.

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“I was humble enough to understand I actually needed him,” Fiorina said. “He knew the customers and the company and I didn’t. I was empathetic enough to understand he was afraid of me … So he wanted to scare me to death. The point is, sometimes to collaborate with others … you have to be both humble and empathetic.”

Those qualities inspire Fiorina’s top tip for young women who ask for advice: “Don’t get a chip on your shoulder, and don’t hide your light under a bushel.”

What does that look like in practice? While you should seek out people who lift you up, you may have to deal with people who try to tear you down.

“You may have to collaborate with them,” Fiorina said. “But don’t endeavor to fit in. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. Be as smart as you are, as brave as you are, as committed as you are, as good a problem solver as you are.”