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Lessons from the Paula Deen drama

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This Jan. 17, 2012 file photo shows celebrity chef Paula Deen posing for a portrait in New York. (AP)

Two confessions first.

I am not a Food Channel watcher. And I really like Paula Deen.

The first time I witnessed Ms. Deen on a television program, I, like so many other folks around this country, was enchanted by this earthy, saucy and larger-than-life  personality with the big heart of gold.

That is Ms. Deen's public performance. And though I have never met Ms. Deen, I have a very strong hunch that this is who Paula Deen is. "I am not an actress," she declared tearfully in Wednesday's interview with Matt Lauer on "The Today Show." I believe her. Ms. Deen is her act, on- and off-stage.

The Paula Deen drama reminds us of the leadership qualities we so fervently need in our leaders.

This act has also become her undoing. Allegations of racial slurs were compounded when Ms. Deen, under oath, seemed to show little perspective on the impact that racially offensive language has on members of a target group. 

She escalated her own drama when she failed to show up for an appearance on "The Today Show" a week ago and hastily posted three apology videos, instead. Her professional fortunes are unraveling as sponsor after sponsor:  The Food Network, Smithfield Foods, Caesars Entertainment, Wal-Mart, Home Depot -- is severing the relationship.

It is tragic to watch a much-loved heroine in a public free-fall. We can spin many stories out of what is happening to Paula Deen. 

Ultimately, this is a story of a business leader who has failed to show up under crisis. At a time when most Americans are resolutely cynical about our business leaders and politicians, the Paula Deen drama reminds us of the leadership qualities we so fervently need in our leaders, and in ourselves, if we want to fashion a collectively better future.

- Self-awareness is not a luxury item. Being self-aware is not a leisure-time pursuit for folks who have nothing better to do. The more people a leader impacts with her words and actions, the more central self-awareness is to ensuring that the impact is positive, intended, and sustainable.

Self-awareness, moreover, is not a lightning jolt that a leader gets once and is then done with. It is a daily practice. 

Impactful leaders are mindful and willing to self-correct. They are able to evolve beliefs and values in the face of new scientific research or cultural shifts, as we have so potently seen in the many "perspective conversions" around gay marriage rights.

"I is who I is, and I will not change," as Paula Deen firmly stated in her interview with Matt Lauer, is not a mindset that fosters self-awareness.

- Crisis yearns for a quick response. When things go wrong, great leaders notice and respond quickly. They respond clearly. And they manage their emotions.

Rudy Giuliani did this magnificently in his response to 9/11. He was not only the mayor of New York City, he was also an affected citizen. But he showed up moment by moment, voice shaking with emotion, tears welling up in his eyes -  and he acted.

Ms. Deen's "Today Show" interview needed to happen last Friday, when Ms. Deen was a no-show on the same program. 

Three consecutive YouTube apologies in one day were the acts of a person who was unable to commit to clear and simple action. And while her emotion-laden chat with Matt Lauer made for great TV viewing, it also revealed a leader whose emotions had paralyzed her ability to take charge.

- Ditch the victim thinking. The more successful a leader is, the more folks will seek to vilify the leader, in turn. Barack Obama knows this. George W. Bush knows this. Oprah Winfrey knows this. Personal attacks can become cruel and vicious. And in a social-media-universe, this cruelty is instantly teleported.

Ms. Deen launched into her chat with Mr. Lauer by describing her distress about the lies folks were telling about her. 

Such display of a victim mindset is a leadership dead-end. It does not support a forward-moving leadership story. 

Any leader who plays the success game needs to also learn to play the "I will not wither under personal attacks" game. 

Victim thinking is leadership jail; it seems to have imprisoned Ms. Deen.

We are a culture that likes to let people off the hook. Because most of us are so acutely aware of our own flaws and shortcomings, we yearn to forgive because we all wish to be forgiven, in turn. 

Paula Deen's ultimate leadership stumble is her muddled mix of apology and defiance.

It makes forgiveness, the very thing she seems to crave, impossible to attain. Great leaders know how to fail with grace. Fully, deeply fail.

And own it.

Achim Nowak an international authority on leadership presence coaches entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 executives around the world. He is the author of "INFECTIOUS: How to Connect Deeply and Unleash the Energetic Leader Within" (Allworth Press, 2013). For more information visit his website:www.influens.com