A record number of viewers tuned into last week’s Republican debate. While prior to the latest contest Donald Trump had steadily held a significant lead, many pundits agree that after an intense three-hour match, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina dominated the floor, emerging as the number-two candidate not far behind Trump. According to CNN, Fiorina’s support rating climbed to 15 percent—12 percentage points higher than in early September. Meanwhile, Trump saw a substantial decrease in support post-debate, losing 8 percentage points from earlier in the month and weighing in at just 24 percent.
With less than 10 percentage points now separating Fiorina from the Republican frontrunner, the question everyone wants answered is: what is Fiorina’s secret sauce that enabled her to climb the charts so dramatically and so quickly? Fiorina demonstrated multi-dimensional layers of leadership presence—cultivated from her over five years as chief executive of one of the largest IT companies in the Fortune 500—offering viewers a glimpse of her CEO style as well as substance.
Her style was visible through her executive poise, standing tall with a sense of calm control in an electric blue suit. She was clear and succinct in her delivery and impeccable in her time management, overrunning the timing bell only once throughout the debate. Fiorina’s style also involved rising above the fray as needed, avoiding the types of direct aggressive attacks that Trump has used throughout the campaign when she knew such attacks would not serve her.
Her substance was demonstrated by her tough, calculated demeanor, calling out Trump for his lack of a policy plan and in contrast inserting her own short list of actions she would take to build up America’s military presence. She spoke confidently and firmly about the logistics of her plan, outlining clear action steps. When tested, as she was frequently during the debate, she never wavered—even when challenged about her past performance as CEO at HP and comments about her physical appearance.
What else seemed potentially presidential about Fiorina? Balanced with her firmness and “ready to fight” demeanor, she displayed a clear sense of compassion and emotion that made it easy for potential voters to connect with her, sharing her personal story of having to bury her stepdaughter who died of drug addiction. She also achieved voter empathy by calling out the American Dream, inspiring others with her story of starting her career as a secretary and rising to CEO, proving that anything is possible in our country.
Lastly, Fiorina’s messaging was strong, such as when she highlighted the fact that women are not a “special interest” group: “Women are the majority of this nation,” she said. “We are half the potential of this nation, and this nation will be better off when every woman has the opportunity to live the life she chooses.”
Regardless of your political affiliation, no one can deny that Fiorina is a fighter, and that her stance and style demonstrate the attributes of a strong and capable leader. The American public is looking for a leader with the power to bring not just toughness but also a human side to the table—and for this debate, Fiorina did just that. As the 2016 presidential race heats up, she’s definitely one to watch.
Who do you think won last week’s Republican debate? I welcome your comments to this post.
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Rebecca Shambaugh is author of the best-selling books “It’s Not a Glass Ceiling, It’s a Sticky Floor,” “Leadership Secrets of Hillary Clinton,” and “Make Room for Her: Why Companies Need an Integrated Leadership Model to Achieve Extraordinary Results.”