Leading a Tech Business Does Not a Great Politician Make

Since the latter days of the 20th Century, business and political leaders have moved between each others’ fields with increasing ease. Vice President Dick Cheney was one; Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is another.

Right now, two former leaders of high-tech companies are running for office: former HP CEO Carly Fiorina and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman. Both headed major high-tech companies; both are, of course, women; both are running in California (Fiorina for U.S. Senate, Whitman for governor); and both are Republicans.

But is experience in leading a tech giant a sufficient qualification to hold political office? And, if so, why?

One could argue that holding a top management position at a technology corporation is no different to holding a similar position in any other business in terms of qualifying a person for political leadership. It certainly couldn’t be less of a qualification than being an actor.

Big Fail on the Campaign Trail

However, Fiorina and Whitman might be special cases. Politics is nothing if not the art of compromise, and it’s not clear that either woman has much expertise in that area.

Fiorina slashed and burned her way through HP, leaving it tottering. Although Whitman did preside over massive layoffs at eBay, she left it highly profitable. How might they play out in California, especially in Silicon Valley?

Will they favor their high-tech friends at the expense of other companies or the rest of California? Will they place more emphasis on technology as a means of reviving California’s shaky economy?

More important, what is the chance of either of them being elected? Despite powerful friends and an opponent — Senator Barbara Boxer — who is widely viewed with dissatisfaction, Fiorina is still trailing slightly in the polls. Further, many of the tens of thousands of HP staff she laid off live in California, which might make it difficult for her to win at the polls.

Meanwhile, Whitman increasingly looks like a lost cause, despite having pumped more than US$100 million of her own money into her campaign against Jerry Brown. How does such lavish expenditure look to voters who are barely scraping by or have been laid off? Does it show her as a leader who’s mindful of the struggles her electorate is going through? Would voters trust her to do what’s best for the state if she is, in effect, trying to buy her way into power?

Further, if neither can manage their political campaigns despite their clout, what does it say about their management skills? How could they run the state?

There are no easy answers to these questions.

Technology in Politics

What’s even more difficult to comprehend is why neither woman is using technology to help her in her campaign. Surely they could trot out followers who set up websites and tweet everyone they know?

President Obama used the Web successfully to come from nowhere and take the presidency. Why can’t Fiorina and Whitman do the same thing?

Or perhaps they could turn to social networking or mobile app promotions. Someone among their supporters must have social networking skills or Web or mobile app skills.

American politicians are reportedly being pursued by “trackers” — volunteers or staffers armed with digital cameras who follow their every move and post their videos on the Web, so the Telegraph claims.

Heck, that tactic emerged back in 2006 when Republican Senate candidate George Allen was caught on video calling an American Indian a “macaca” — a racist term derived from the word “macaque,” which is a kind of monkey. That cost him his campaign.

Recently, a tracker’s YouTube clip was blamed for Sue Lowden’s loss to Sharron Angle in the Republican primary for the Nevada senate. Apparently, Lowden suggested bartering chickens for health care.

So come on, you Californian candidates; show us your high-tech chops. We’re waiting.

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