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3 leadership mistakes from Hillary Clinton’s email fiasco

April 2, 2015, 3:09 PM UTC
Hillary Clinton Holds Press Conference Over Email Controversy
NEW YORK - MARCH 10: Former United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to the media after keynoting a Women's Empowerment Event at the United Nations on March 10, 2015 in New York City. Clinton answered questions about recent allegations of an improperly used email account during her tenure as Secretary of State. (Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images)
Photograph by Yana Paskova — Getty Images

As the Hillary Clinton email scandal escalates, leaders everywhere can learn. So far, Clinton has made 3 big mistakes:

Respond promptly:

Crisis management 101 tells you to get out there early. Even if you need to investigate the facts, you need to say what you do know as soon as possible. It took Hillary a week to respond to a New York Times story about her exclusive use of her personal email account when she was secretary of state. Even supporters such as Democratic Sen. Diane Feinstein of California were out on the Sunday talk show circuit urging her to explain.

Make sure you’re accurate:

When Clinton finally did respond to questions about her private email server, she clearly prepared. She repeatedly used the same words, “more convenient” explaining, “I thought using one device would be simpler, and obviously, it hasn’t worked out that way.” Now it appears that she did use more than one device to email her staff — namely an iPad and Blackberry. That is something you don’t need an investigator to discover.

Adjust your body language:

I’d argue body language was also a big mistake in Clinton’s public response. At a news conference a little more than a week after the The Times’s report, she looked irritated. She appeared to shrug it all off as an overblown reaction by her critics to an innocuous move that many of us would make. I mean, who wouldn’t want to carry one less gadget?

Clinton is far from alone in failing to rehearse her body language as carefully as her message. When New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick finally responded to accusations that his team had deflated the footballs, his body language said he was bothered to be there.. ‘sour grapes by Patriot ‘haters.’ In fact, after I blogged about that, a football fan told me that I was way off base. He said that that’s the way Belichick always acts — and that’s true.

But here’s the deal: The coach was no longer talking about wins and losses and the audience was far bigger than fans. With the news no longer relegated to the sports pages, there were moms and dads with legitimate questions about power and cheating and what kind of message it sends to kids. He would have been well advised to come out of the gate with a more serious tone like the one he’d adopted by the second press conference.

I’ve seen corporate executives get defensive and prickly about many issues —most recently, a Lufthansa executive’s huffiness when asked about the adequacy of their pilot training after the tragic downing of the Germanwings flight .

Like Hillary and Belichick, executives are usually proud of their organizations and resent questions about their personal behavior. When under fire, many feel they are being unfairly targeted by critics and reporters who just don’t understand. But when the news and the audience become big enough, and the questions are legitimate, a smart leader has to appear to respect reactions. They have to acknowledge concerns or appearances and dial back the resentment. That is the only way to keep a mole hill from becoming a mountain.

Mary Civiello is an executive communications coach who works with leaders at some of the world’s largest businesses and not-for-profit organizations, as well as high-profile startups. She is also author of Communication Counts: Business Presentations for Busy People. Previously, she was a reporter and anchor at NBC in New York.