During a 1996 New York Knicks game, spectator Darla Moore caught a wild pass from mid court. Instead of throwing it back to the ref, she tried to make the basket herself.

It’s one of the few times she has missed her mark.

Moore – president of the private investment firm Rainwater Inc. – was recently named to Fortune’s 1999 list of the 50 most powerful women. Along the way she has notched three different careers and earned such distinctions as “the queen of DIP” (debtor-in-possession financing, which Moore pioneered during her highly successful tenure at Chemical Bank), “the toughest babe in business” (emblazoned on a Fortune magazine cover story), and “the best investment I ever made” (attributed to husband Richard Rainwater.)

Appearing at Wharton on Dec. 7 as part of the Zweig Executive Dinner Series, Moore shared perspectives on leadership and success in work environments that ranged at times from unsupportive to hostile. She spoke, for example, about the importance of “being willing to pick your fights within the corporate environment” and, having picked them, “to fight to the death.” She reminded her audience, many of them women, “to never take any attack personally in the business environment because if you do you will be rendered ineffective … it is irremediable to break into tears in a public forum.” She spoke also of the role of mentors and of the importance of “being a decision maker … the ability to make a decision, even if it’s a wrong one, can’t be underestimated.”

Moore grew up in Lake City, S.C., a tobacco town that “was part of the last school district in America to integrate.” Her biggest motivation, she says, “was to get out of that environment and be somebody, whatever that meant at the time.”

The way out for Moore started with college at the University of South Carolina and a research job with the Republican National Committee in Washington, D.C. Politics, she thought then, was synonymous with power and the ability to influence people and events. She found out rather quickly that “Washington D.C. is borrowed power. There is nothing real about it. It’s here today and gone tomorrow. Politics gives new meaning to the term volatility. I realized I wasn’t going to be anybody in that environment.”

She was ready for career number two. At the suggestion of a mentor (her first experience of “the power of mentors”) she attended business school at George Washington University and then joined 30 other MBAs in the training program at Chemical Bank (now Chase). “It was the early ’80s, a time when the sun was rising on the LBO business,” Moore notes. “All the action in the financial arena, everything interesting and powerful, was there. And I thought to myself, ’This is the place I have to be. Because I can be somebody.’”

As it turned out, Moore never got the chance. “There wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that a female from the rural deep south would be invited or embraced by that LBO environment. Historically no major players in the LBO business were women.”

Another mentor stepped in and advised Moore to consider the bankruptcy area, which, Moore says, “was open because it was viewed as a graveyard, a place where you were sent because you couldn’t play in the mainstream … The idea was to work with companies that got into financial trouble. At the time there were very few of them, and no one was doing anything remotely like making” any money on it.

“I worked in the trenches with these financially distressed companies while the LBO establishment continued to churn out ever bigger, ever more expensive mergers and acquisitions. These people had no concept that there would ever be an economic downturn.”

Of course there was, and “America blew up, largely as a result of greed, a total lack of perspective … and the over-leveraging of the corporate environment. I had watched all this going on and thought, ’Keep financing this, boys, because you are just creating business for me,’” Moore says.

By the early 1990s, Moore had become the highest-paid woman in banking and an extremely tough negotiator. “All of a sudden, this product I had created was the ’product du jour’. Nobody in the country had any kind of infrastructure or knowledge that could address this, other than what I had developed over a several-year period. I was the only person with the expertise, and our area was the only one making any money. It had become a powerful profit center within the bank.”

Which meant, for Moore, a series of turf battles. “You will find yourself in circumstances where you cannot avoid a fight, but you have to be judicious and use discretion,” she says. “You cannot pick a fight at every turn because then you lose your credibility … There were three or four different times when professionally, if I had not been willing to fight, the business would have been wrecked.”

The single best area to learn about business is in a financially distressed environment, adds Moore, “because there are no rules. It’s only what works. You are operating in a limited time frame, which forces you to make decisions. You find out very quickly what it takes to run a company.”

In 1991, Moore married investor Richard Rainwater. In 1993 she became president of Rainwater Inc. It is career number three. According to Fortune, by 1997 she had tripled her husband’s net worth, to $1.5 billion.

Not without some battles. “At Rainwater, we do things differently than other investment companies,” Moore says. “I’ll describe what we don’t do. We are not public stock pickers. We are not market pickers at all. We have no opinion on the market. We don’t track it hourly on the Internet. We are also not managers. We identify companies and assets and then go out and select managers.

“In the early days we will be fairly active in a business or an investment, but we are interested bystanders. We will not run anything, unless something bad happens.”

As it did with Columbia/HCA, where Moore eventually fired CEO Rick Scott, a friend of her husband’s, after the health-care company became the target of a federal criminal investigation.

One of the biggest lessons she learned from being in the investment and bankruptcy environments, Moore says, is that “the success or failure of the business doesn’t necessarily have to do only with the numbers, but rather with the personalities and character of the people who run it. People get so impressed with what they have accomplished that they can no longer see themselves in the context of reality. This is what happened with Columbia.”

When the federal government, which accounted for 40% of Columbia’s revenues, attempted to get information from the company, “management stonewalled. If that had continued, I believe the fate of Columbia would have been similar to that of Drexel. The government will kill you if they are of mind. They could have killed Columbia just as they did Drexel. That was what created the aggressiveness on my part. We would not have done what we did if the stakes had not been so high – the potential loss of the whole company…

“Beware of hubris – excessive arrogance – in all aspects of business.”

Moore is also well known for her decision to remove corporate raider T. Boone Pickens from Mesa, his oil and gas company which by the early 1990s was overextended and facing a possible takeover. Moore put $260 million into Mesa to buy a preferred stock position that gave Rainwater Inc. control of the company. Originally the plan had been to let Pickens stay in place, but when “I went out into the market to refinance Mesa’s debt, I found that no one on Wall Street would touch this because of Pickens.” The CEO had to go. “So what came to be viewed as me [removing] Scott and Pickens had nothing to do with me personally,” Moore says, acknowledging, however, that the perception of her “allegedly taking these two out” led to the 1997 Fortune cover story. “It had to do with the markets. Always remember, markets take people out. That’s one of the glories of capitalism.”

Another of capitalism’s particular glories is that it allows people to give back to their communities. Moore recently funded a business school, named after her, that she sees as a way to help others share in the opportunities that the capitalist system offers. “It’s the give-back,” Moore says. “It’s the enlightened capitalism of the new millennium.”

Moore had other pieces of advice to give her audience, including, for example, an analysis, “in retrospect,” of why she made the decisions that she did. “They were based on whether they got me into a position of independence, not necessarily on whether I would get more money or have more people to manage. It was, ’if I do this vs. that, where will I have more control over my environment’. That has always been a major motivator for me.”

She also discussed the importance of appearing confident on the job. “If you don’t have confidence when you are starting out – and most people don’t – then fake it. Fake the confidence. Because one day, due to the quality of your performance, it will become an integrated part of yourself.”

Confidence, one might add, is clearly needed in today’s investment environment. Rainwater Inc.’s $1 billion-plus investment portfolio, has, according to Fortune, suffered some recent setbacks. Moore acknowledges the tough times: “We are so damned scared of what is going on out there and so totally nonplussed. We have divided the assets into ’stay rich’ and ’get rich’. The ’stay rich’ investments include low-beta, big-money, long-term holdings in the real estate, health care and energy sectors, among others. There is not a lot of volatility, just big gorilla investments in a handful of industries we like.”

Rainwater Inc. also has invested “a couple of hundred million in the ’get rich’ businesses. These include your structured deals, high-volatility, dart board shooting, and that has been extremely successful in the last two years.

“We split it up like that to protect the wealth that has been created over the last 10 years, but also to still participate in the market today.” Included in their investments are “a half dozen technology positions. To the extent they can be educated positions, we will take them. But we are not targeting big pots of money there.”