What’s most remarkable about the sexual harassment accusations surrounding Herman Cain are not really the allegations themselves. It is also not the way in which he lost his cool on camera when confronted by reporters asking about it. And it is not even that he is now accusing Rick Perry’s campaign of leaking the allegations—a charge Perry’s campaign denies—to Politico, which first reported the story.
What’s most surprising to me is that Cain’s campaign apparently got 10 days’ notice about the allegations, and did not have a coherent, rock-solid response on Day One. Ten days, after all, is light years in today’s media world, as the crush of the Twittersphere, cable news and 20 zillion political blogs with every manner of agenda possible compete for the public’s attention. That is more than enough time for any leader not only to come up with a workable crisis communications plan, but to call in an army of public relations experts to vet it.
Instead, when the news broke Sunday night, Cain first denied the allegations. He then allowed details to dribble out, sometimes saying things at odds with what he’d said not long before. He’s played the victim card, the race card and the finger-pointing card. His reaction has been so unsteady, writes the Post’s Dan Balz, that he “has shown himself to be unprepared for the rigors of a national campaign.”
Or, one might argue, to make the kind of decisions he would face as president. The leader of the free world, after all, does not receive 10 days to determine how he or she will respond to a natural disaster affecting millions of citizens, an economic crisis on the other side of the world, or even the inevitable scandal that erupts surrounding a staff member. Rather, presidents must be prepared to respond with immediacy, clarity and authority to the dozens of bona fide fires they must put out each day.
For leaders, that doesn’t just require being verbally dexterous or a fast decision-maker. It means having a war room of people who have helped you to anticipate potential crises and their solutions, who proactively seek out problems that aren’t even yet visible, and who take seriously any signs that trouble is on the horizon. Great leaders aren’t just quick on their feet; they’re as prepared as possible to respond to crises as soon as they erupt.
Granted, there are no easy answers for how to react to accusations of sexual harassment, especially if it actually did take place. But Cain’s comeback, especially given the lead time he had to get ahead of the problem, is likely to prompt some voters to question not just how well his campaign is being run, but how he’ll make decisions as president. If he actually is serious about running for president, he’ll need to learn how to seriously respond to crises, too.
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