My Boss, Herman Cain. What Kind of Leader Is GOP Frontrunner?

The lowdown from those he bossed at Burger King, Godfather's.

Oct. 14, 2011 -- The Republican presidential field's new frontrunner is Mr. 9-9-9, Herman Cain. Among Republican primary voters, 27 percent say he is their first choice for president, up 5 percentage points from August.

Since the ex-pizza company executive is running for the highest management job in the land, maybe now is the right time to ask: What kind of boss is Herman Cain?

People who worked with or for him describe a natural-born leader and commanding speaker--someone skilled at picking the right words and images to drive home his point. He possesses formidable self-discipline. He's adept at handling prickly people and defusing potentially explosive situations. But management experts question how hands-on Cain really was as Godfather's CEO. And others allege that Cain holds some responsibility for the failure of an energy company, whose board he joined in 1992.

"Herman Cain is the picture of charismatic leadership. He has this great gift of eloquence ... of being able to articulate issues very succinctly," said Timothy McMahon, a Creighton University business professor who specializes in leadership. "I think he's tireless. He's full of enthusiasm. Did he in fact run the business? No, that was really his partner. He was kicking tires and lighting fires. His gift was to get people enthused about the challenge at hand.

"I don't see Herman being the guy that grew Godfather's Pizza," said McMahon. "Did he do any harm? No, he didn't do any harm. People needed to get excited and focused. He had the gift to cause that to happen."

The true engine behind the pizza company's growth, contends McMahon, was Godfather's founder, Willy Theisen, who grew the company from zero to 1,000 stores. "That guy was truly charismatic. There was not a lot of unit growth or stores added for Godfather's and that included the time Cain came on," says McMahon.

His days at Godfather's "has prepared him to be the front runner in the race at this point and time," says McMahon. "I think people are Cainivores, they can't get enough of Herman Cain right now, and part of that is people are frustrated about the state of affairs," says McMahon. "I'm not sure that means he is also going to be the best president."

When it comes to leadership, "somebody has to get people to work together," says McMahon. "If that's Herman Cain -great. I think that's a fool's answer if I told you he was going to be a great president based on being charismatic. Sarah Palin is charismatic and she doesn't seem to want to get in the race. Some of these people that are charismatic don't want to run it out."

Herman Cain's spot on the board of directors at Aquila, a high-flying energy company that crashed to earth, may be a blotch on his record.

The Kansas City-based company and Cain faced allegations that employee retirement funds were heavily invested in company stock when the company was changing to investments to "high risk enterprises." The complaint states, "...the risk profile of the Aquila Fund drastically transformed from a conservative utility investment to a high risk growth stock."

The company settled the suit for $10.5 million.

Fred Taylor Isquith, a lawyer with Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz, LLP, based in New York City, handled the class-action case against Aquila.

"Our investigative efforts focused on the Greens and on the trustees of the pension fund. Although other persons, including directors, were named in the lawsuit. I have no recollection that [Cain] had any involvement," he said. "We did not focus on that at all. That was not what the case was about. I don't recall whether he had any role directly with the pensions. Although as director he had a responsibility to make sure what was [said] about the company was accurate. In that sense, he, like the other directors, collectively bore some responsibilities for making sure the information was accurate."

Godfather Years

John Chisholm, a franchisee of Godfather's Pizza, the company Cain once helmed, says Cain always treated people well. "Whether you were a dishwasher or an owner of a restaurant," he says, "you got respect and were treated with dignity." Chisholm at one time owned some 80 Godfather's outlets. "We were one of the original franchisees," he recalls.

Cain came to Pillsbury-owned Godfather's from Burger King in 1986, finding a company in need of improvement, according to restaurant industry observers. Cain himself has said that the 620-store chain was on the verge of bankruptcy when he arrived. At the time, restaurant industry analyst John McMillin quipped to the Chicago Tribune, "Pillsbury got Godfather's for nothing, and some said they got what they paid for."

According to the Omaha World-Herald, Cain inherited a dispirited workforce, lackluster TV advertising and menus that were too long. Some Godfather's stores badly need sprucing up.

Chisholm's business partner, Brian Bartling, was "just an hourly employee" in 1987, he says, when Cain began to turn the company around. "I started out delivering pizzas," says Bartling, "then later I became a manager. Still later I got to buy into the company." At every step of his progress, he had the chance to see Cain in action.

"I was just an employee on the franchisee side, but I went to events where he was speaking. He's very motivating--inspiring. He makes you want to go out there and do your best. He always had me on the edge of my seat, listening to him talk. I love that he's running for president."

Bartling says Cain was someone who always tried to make life better for those working with him. "He made me think I could do anything. He could turn a bad situation into good."

Human resources executive Spencer Wiggins was hired by Cain in 1984, when Cain was working for Burger King in Philadelphia. Wiggins remembers his boss as having been persuader-in-chief: someone to whom it was difficult to say "no."

"He's genuine," says Wiggins. "Very genuine. He brightens up a room. When I first met him, I was very reluctant to work for Burger King. At that time I was working for Kraft. I was an up-and-comer, a hot-shot exec. I kind of looked down on the fast food industry--I thought I was above that. I didn't even want to meet Herman."

But Cain persisted trying to recruit him. Said Cain when they first met: "Why are you running away from me? You're just who I'm looking for." Wiggins says he had still had no intention of working in fast food and even less intention of moving to Omaha, where Cain was headed. But the Herman was hard to resist. "Pretty soon," says Wiggins, "there was a moving van pulling up to my house, and I was headed to Omaha."

At both Burger King and Godfather's, Wiggins had a front-row seat to watch how Cain dealt with difficult people and difficult situations.

"I've rarely seen him get angry, but there was one time, in Philly, when one of the Burger King franchisees wanted to expand. He was not a very good franchisee, not always up to par on quality control or customer friendliness. Herman told him he would not be allowed to expand, and explained why. This franchisee was African American, and he insulted Herman by telling him he was just a tool for 'The Man' and that Herman did not respect his own race."

Cain, responding, did not raise his voice. "But you could tell," says Wiggins, "that he was totally angry and pissed off." Cain told the man: "I am going to have to excuse myself, because if I do not, I will do something out of character for me. It's on your behalf that I'm going to leave."

He handled it very well, thinks Wiggins, who recalls that at Godfather's, "There were never any screaming matches."

Cain told Wiggins: "How you handle anger or adversity is just as important as how you handle yourself when things are going good. People are watching you. They won't put their trust in you if you don't behave with dignity."

Wiggins recalls a time, shortly after Cain and a group of executives had acquired Godfather's from Pillsbury in a leveraged buyout, when Cain had to deal with a senior information technology executive who was upset that in the transition he had not been made head of IT.

"Because we were no longer part of Pillsbury, we needed good IT people tremendously," recalls Wiggins. The man gave Cain what amounted to an ultimatum: either Cain gave him the top spot, or he'd be leaving. Said Cain: "Look, we need you. But as for your being the top person, we'll have to figure that out as we move forward."

That wasn't good enough for the executive, who renewed his threat to leave. Says Wiggins, "Herman told the guy, 'Look, you need to go home and get some sleep on this. I'm hopeful you'll come to your senses and that we'll be able to be successful together. But if you're telling me you're quitting, I can only say God bless you and all the best.' He handled it with extreme courtesy. But he wasn't going to let himself be held up."

ABC News' Lyneka Little contributed to this story.