50 Shades of Scandal (and How to Deal With It)
President Obama broke a barrier at the CIA recently by appointing the first woman, White House lawyer Avril D. Haines, to be the agency's deputy director. Search for Haines in Google, however, and news of her appointment competes with what Washington really seems to think is most important:
From The Daily Beast:
Two decades ago, when she was in her 20s, Haines occasionally hosted erotica readings at an indie bookstore she owned in Baltimore.
And The Washington Post:
It's a quirkier resume than you generally find among Beltway super-achievers of her generation, who often went straight from college to Capitol Hill or Wall Street or Harvard Law. Haines, 43, instead had a stint as an urban entrepreneur, running Adrian's Book Café ... [T]here were the times that Adrian's welcomed patrons for the occasional readings of high-toned erotica ...
That's it; that's what passes for scandal these days and rises to the top of Google results--reading from books like the bestselling 50 Shades of Grey, in public.
Nobody suggests the news should have any bearing on whether Obama should have picked her for the CIA job, but that doesn't matter. We live in a world now where gotcha politics, social media, and an Internet that never forgets, combine to mean that just about anything any of us ever does can come back to haunt us. That's true whether your aspirations are in politics or business.
Undeniably, sexism plays a role in the sexy stories about Haines's bookish past. Sex and tawdriness sell and lead to clicks, of course. (Exhibit A: the suggested features on the Daily Beast article page include -- and I could not make this up--Bea Arthur's Boobs--and What It Says About Art on Facebook.)
Regardless, I think there are good lessons to be learned--not just for government officials but for anyone who aspires to positions of leadership.
Nearly everyone has something in his or her past that they wish wasn't there, at least that others can twist into something at least quasi-controversial. So, taking a play from Haines's book, here's how to handle it:
1. Think Before Acting.
Back in 1995, Haines clearly wrestled with the question of whether to host these kinds of readings at her bookstore. She wanted to balance what her customers seemed to want with what it meant for her store and her reputation. She said at the time that she had originally "balked" at hosting the readings back in 1995, but relented after thinking it through.
2. Revel in Your Decisions
Haines hasn't made any public comment on the whole erotica-reading-tempest, but it's worth noting that once she made the decision to hold the readings back in the 1990s, she embraced the choice. She not only advertised it--she invited a reporter from The Baltimore Sun to interview her and write about them. There's something disarming when a person takes tempered pride, even as critics snicker and snipe.
3. Grow Thick Skin
Haines is young by Washington standards, and her appointment marks a meteoritic rise. I would never be so naive as to think that jealously doesn't play a role in what stories make their way into print. The only way to deal with that kind of ankle-biting is to learn not to care.
Besides, it's lonely at the top. If you really want a friend in Washington, get a dog.
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