Handling a scandal: Lessons from Herman Cain

Flickr image/Gage Skidmore
Flickr image/Gage Skidmore

Is Herman Cain ready for primetime?

That question has gained urgency since the disclosure that Cain was accused of sexual harassment by some women employees, two of whom received financial settlements from his former employer, the National Restaurant Association.

Whether Cain is the family man he and supporters believe him to be - or something less savory - will be settled soon enough. But the question is: Can Cain handle the spotlight? And is he ready to lead the nation?

An exploration of that question goes far beyond politics and gets to the heart of what it takes to lead an organization, especially a large one. So far, Cain is not doing what good leaders do when faced with a crisis.

Defuse the issue by tackling it. Herman Cain changed his story so many times that he looked like he was hiding something. He acted defensive and worse he lashed out at others, accusing another candidate of smearing him. Neither tactic reveals leadership character, certainly not of the presidential kind.

Get your act together. Politico, which first broke the story about the sexual harassment settlements, gave the Cain campaign ten days to respond to the story. It did not, and so when Cain was asked by Jonathan Martin, the reporter who broke the story, Cain acted offended. That is disingenuous because his campaign knew such questions were coming.

Keep your emotions in check. Cain snipes and snarls at reporters who are asking him tough questions. Certainly no one likes probing questions but that comes with the territory when you run for political office, especially the presidency. Acting arrogantly only makes a public figure look small, not leader-like.

Know yourself. Cain likes to say that he's not a politician. Well, he is. He is running for elected office. He also ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004 from his native state of Georgia and lost in the primary. Politics requires a mix of leadership and political skills. And as head of the National Restaurant Association Cain did a fair amount of lobbying. Cain knows how to persuade and cajole in order to make his case. We call that politicking.

Herman Cain has many attributes. He's quick-witted and irrepressibly confident. He's also been a straight talker. In a previous column, I lauded him for his sense of optimism. It's the core of his leadership persona. He also is a man of perseverance. He worked his way up the ladder at Pillsbury and later became CEO of Godfather's Pizza. He also survived colon cancer.

Cain may very well be innocent of sexual harassment; as Suzanne Lucas pointed out,companies often settle such cases to make them go away not because the executive is guilty. Unfortunately, Cain's and his team's inability to come to grips with the harassment issues reveals that Cain, like many leaders who are thrust into the limelight, need to understand that leadership is not about what you want to do, it's about what your organization and your followers need you to do.

Right now, he must exert his leadership so that voters have the opportunity to judge him on his ability to manage a crisis and move forward.