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What business can learn from Hillary Clinton’s email saga

April 6, 2015, 2:31 PM UTC
Annual Women's Empowerment Principles meeting in New York
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - MARCH 10: Former United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during meeting of Annual Women's Empowerment Principles, entitled Unlimited Potential: Business Partners for Gender Equality at UN Headquarters in New York, United States, on March 10, 2015. (Photo by Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Photograph by Cem Ozdel — Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton can’t seem to catch a break. After weathering a storm of political criticism from Republicans over Benghazi, she has been on the firing line for using her personal email account to conduct State Department affairs, and it seems that Congress will continue to hound her on this issue for some time.

Still, the former New York senator and Secretary of State seems relatively unruffled by this latest problem, even as she is expected to announce her candidacy for the White House later this month.

While some may consider this a sign of political blindness, it’s actually good crisis management. Clinton demonstrates that she can differentiate between a crisis and a disaster, and refuses to let the former become the latter by lending more credence to the email scandal than it necessarily deserves.

It can be argued, of course, that using her personal email account as a proxy at the State Department was a poor choice, but that seems to be pretty much all it is. So far, no evidence of actual wrongdoing has surfaced. More importantly, Clinton is likely counting on the fact that, with plenty of time left to go before the Democratic primaries in early 2016 and even more before the general election, the political and media circus surrounding this issue will inevitably die down and lose its power to tantalize, let alone hurt her bid for President.

This doesn’t mean that Clinton isn’t gambling and we don’t yet know the full implications of the email saga; a crisis can grow if left unchecked. But unless the email scandal shows a clear sign of escalating beyond noise and is linked to anything more serious than bad judgment, Clinton is correct to downplay the issue. Anything else would fan the flames further and could turn a temporary challenge into a long-term problem.

Nor is Clinton the only example of this vital crisis management principle.

GM (GM) CEO Mary Barra was confronted with a serious recall scandal, involving faulty ignition switches, at the automaker in 2014. Critics pounced on the newly minted leader about how much she had known about the defect prior to being appointed CEO. While acknowledging the central problem, Barra did not let the criticism derail her.

She fixed the defects, apologized publicly for any lapses on GM’s part, and then focused her energies on running the company. While the automaker is still confronting legal troubles over the ignition switches and will likely continue to settle with grieving families, it hasn’t stopped performing; the company seems to be growing and recently announced a $5 billion share buyback to send excess cash back to investors.

To be clear, Barra’s response does not absolve GM of its mistakes or lessen the tragedies of people dying as a result of defective cars. If anything, the incident was a legitimate black eye for GM and a cautionary tale that will hopefully result in better oversight at the automaker to prevent such tragedies in the future.

The point is that even though Barra took the recalls seriously and was sympathetic with those who were hurt by the auto defect, as the CEO of the company she also realized that the correct answer was to improve GM’s processes, not to surrender the company itself. It wouldn’t have helped anyone if Barra had allowed it to balloon into a disaster, which is why her efforts to keep GM moving forward were appropriate and even essential.

What both these examples show is that it’s crucial for leaders to keep problems in perspective, even when the issues involved are genuinely serious and criticism is fierce. While addressing crises to the best of their ability, they also need to keep those challenges from destroying everything good that they (or their organizations) are capable of doing.

For Clinton’s part, she shouldn’t ignore her responsibility to be accountable to the public, but neither can she afford to let the email scandal derail her political leadership and the important work that she has done for decades to promote liberal causes, especially for women and children. It’s not perfect, but in the scheme of things, it’s the better choice.

Sanjay Sanghoee is a business commentator. He has worked at investment banks Lazard Freres and Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, as well as at hedge fund Ramius Capital.

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