Why Ellison's Defense of Mark Hurd Is Nonsense

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I can understand and appreciate it when a guy sticks up for his buddy, but Oracle CEO Larry Ellison's defense of ousted Hewlett-Packard chief Mark Hurd was so over the top that even Hurd must have been rolling his eyes.


Ellison's now-famous e-mail to The New York Times depicted Hurd as a victim of "cowardly corporate political correctness," which is debatable. I could argue both sides of that point, so that assertion doesn't bother me. What bothers me is Ellison's claim that HP lost "one of Silicon Valley's best and most respected leaders." That's just plain nonsense.


There are certain qualities that a person absolutely must have to be a good leader, and the two qualities at the very top of that list are truthfulness and respect for the people under one's leadership. If either is missing, none of a leader's other qualities really matter. And unfortunately, Hurd lacks them both.


My most vivid recollection of Hurd is his embarrassing performance at the HP Technology Forum in Houston in September 2006. It was just a week after news broke about the HP media-leak investigation scandal, and the dust of the whole mess still hadn't settled. Hurd, who's unapproachable in the best of times, had gone into bunker mode to avoid having to answer questions about the matter, so his scheduled appearance at the Technology Forum raised some hope in the media that he would address the situation.


My hopes in particular were raised when I walked into the massive convention center hall for the opening keynote and found that microphones had been set up at various locations throughout the seating area, presumably so the attendees could use them to ask questions. Could it be that Hurd had summoned the courage to do the right thing and take unscreened questions from the crowd?


When Hurd finished his keynote, he said he was going to take some questions. But rather than inviting the attendees to step up to the microphones to ask them, he brought to the stage an HP vice president who was holding some cards that he said had questions that came "from our crowd."


That was a lie. No one in the crowd was given an opportunity to submit any questions. Four questions were read from the cards, all ridiculously self-serving: What's the significance of HP's Mercury acquisition? How does HP differentiate itself from its competitors? How does Hurd see HP Services going forward? How is the rest of the company uniting behind the sales force? I'm not making this up. Those were really the questions.


When it was all over, I went to two HP PR representatives to try to find out where the questions really came from, since it was obvious that they didn't come from the crowd. One said she didn't know, but thought maybe they were submitted online by members of HP's user groups. The other said she didn't know, but would ask Hurd's speechwriter. Both of them promised me they would find out and get back to me. Neither one ever did.


The whole thing would have been comical if it wasn't so sad. It was all a charade -- a huge lie and an obscene display of arrogance and disdain for the customers, shareholders, and partners in that hall and beyond. Instead of using the opportunity to address the scandal directly with those people and to answer their questions-to at least assure them that it wouldn't be a distraction for the company-Hurd took the cowardly way out and took part in an orchestrated fabrication to avoid having to face the tough questions.


So no, Larry, Mark Hurd is not "one of Silicon Valley's best and most respected leaders." He's just a guy who didn't lead very well at all, and who's nonetheless walking away from HP with millions upon millions of dollars, while thousands upon thousands of victims of his ruthless layoffs scrape to get by. That's all.