View Photo Gallery: A look at each Republican contender’s best leadership attribute.

Mitt Romney’s tax returns for 2010 and 2011 were shared late Monday night, and as suggested, the GOP candidate pays about 15 percent in federal taxes. For 2010, he disclosed $21.7 million in income, nearly all of it from investments, stock dividends and interest payments, and paid a tax rate of 13.9 percent. In 2011, he expects to pay 15.4 percent on an income of $20.9 million.

But what I want to know about Mitt Romney’s tax returns is not how much he made or why he paid such a low rate—that’s obvious. What I want to know is why he released them now. Clearly, one upside of not releasing them Monday morning was that he would be able to tell the audience in Monday night’s GOP debate that he was about to release his returns—while not having to answer questions about them yet, either. If he was going to challenge Newt Gingrich to release his contract with Freddie Mac, for which he was paid at least $1.6 million in “consulting services,” he had to be ready to do the same with his returns. And as Romney said on a Sunday morning talk show, he realized that holding off on releasing them had become a “distraction” and was a “mistake” that was generating the wrong kind of attention.  

But releasing them just before President Obama’s State of the Union, in which the president is expected to address income inequality and could bring up the so-called Buffett Rule, offers the president the perfect foil for his talking points. This could be just what Mitt Romney wants: His pride in paying “all the taxes that are legally required and not a dollar more” could put him in contrast to the president’s talk of “fairness,” which many in Romney’s party somehow liken to “socialism.” Or it could hurt him with independent voters who’ve been struggling in this economy, painting Romney as a very wealthy man who has tax advantages they don’t.

The biggest question in my mind, though, is why Mitt Romney didn’t go ahead and release his tax returns in the first place. It has been painfully obvious for weeks that his opponents were not going to let up in their quest to get him to fork them over. Not only did they have past precedent on their side—most presidential candidates do release their returns—but they had Romney’s own father, who shared 12 years of returns when he ran for the GOP nomination in the 1960s. When asked by debate moderator John King last week whether he would follow in his father’s footsteps, Romney offered up an awkward “maybe” before getting booed by the audience.

Instead, Romney now looks cowed by his rivals into releasing his returns earlier than he’d suggested. He’s back on his heels, and giving those who call him a “flip flopper” yet more fodder to work with. Worse, it makes his prior promise of an April release—purportedly because that’s when past candidates have released them, but also, one has to think, because he might have locked up the nomination by then—pretty transparent.

This is Public Relations 101, people. Trying to delay potentially “bad” news usually hurts leaders—it only adds to the speculation, shines a brighter spotlight on the issue, and makes people question the motives for holding back on the news. It can pin leaders into releasing the news at a particularly awkward time. Most communications pros agree it’s better to rip off the band-aid, let the news get out there and run its course, and allow the conversation to move on to the next order of business. There may be some risk involved, but when it comes to uncomfortable facts, it’s better for a leader to play offense, being confident in their record and unbowed by their rivals, than to find themselves on the defensive for any extended period of time.

More from On Leadership:

What Newt Gingrich’s win tells us

The other Gingrich and Santorum

PHOTOS | The candidates’ best leadership attributes

View Photo Gallery: Leadership experts from Warren Bennis to Tom Peters share their picks of the best leadership books to hit shelves this year.

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