Why every leader should stumble

Let me start by asking a question you probably think you know the answer to, and yet most everyone gets it wrong: when do you think former president John F. Kennedy was most popular? If history is as good a teacher as it's cracked up to be, your answer will probably be "After he was assassinated." The next most common assumption is that Kennedy was most popular after his election or after he "won" the Cuban missile crisis. Each answer is wrong. The correct answer, paradoxically, is that JFK was most popular after he flubbed the Bay of Pigs invasion. That's correct: Kennedy gained popularity after demonstrating to the world that he had feet of clay.

In a tactical maneuver that psychologists call a "strategic-pratfall effect," Kennedy's botching of the Bay of Pigs invasion and accepting responsibility for it showed that he was not only human and fallible but also honest, forthright, and possessed of a back large enough to shoulder the responsibilities of his office. Because Kennedy fell off his pedestal and dirtied himself but didn't pass the buck, people could identify with his plight and feel safe giving him the credit he deserved, without fear of being overwhelmed by who he was or what he had achieved.

To understand why Kennedy was better liked when his image was tarnished than when it was polished and, more important, to understand how that phenomenon can translate into management effectiveness for you, we first have to acknowledge a frequently overlooked aspect of success, namely, that while we actively admire and seek to identify with those who have achieved success, we often secretly hate them for possessing what we covet. Why shouldn't we resent those who hog life's rewards if we can't do the same?

If we apply that reasoning to the workplace, we find that people often judge those who have achieved stellar success to be lousy bosses or, more precisely, elitist snobs who lack people skills. In my experience, that judgment has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual interpersonal competence of the successful leader. Rather, those who report to someone who they believe thinks he qualifies for residence on Mount Olympus -- or acts as though he's ascending to that neighborhood -- resent the hell out of him and secretly hope that he gets knocked off his high horse.

Right about now I can hear many of you protesting: "Hey, shrink, I don't need the love of my employees to manage them." Amen. You needn't be buddy-buddy with your workers or even with your closest colleagues to function effectively on a day-to-day basis. Over the long haul, though, executives who have become too distant or aloof from the rank and file because of their status will find their workers jumping ship far more gleefully than employees of executives who know how to break down the barriers to intimacy that success generally fosters.

Psychologists who have researched the strategic-pratfall effect have found that it can be an effective way to gain favor for anyone who has shown a certain degree of competence. While there are a number of factors that can affect whether slipping on a banana peel will enhance your likability -- or just make you look like a pitiful klutz -- strategic pratfalls are an invaluable aid for the successful person who fears that he or she is doomed to being "lonely at the top."

Let me tell you about a client of mine whom I'll call Jerry, a successful software engineer with the brains, although not the market niche, of a Bill Gates. Jerry was struggling to retain control of a company he had taken from the confines of his basement to near Inc. 500 status in less than four years. Yet when Jerry called me for help in managing his roughly 80 employees, he reported that insubordination and passive-aggressive behavior were rampant. My initial conversation with him revealed that every attempt he had made to endear himself to "his people" had backfired miserably.

After digging deeper into the whys and wherefores of Jerry's problem, I soon discovered that the source of his difficulties was simple, straightforward, and superficial. It seemed that the unique version of a pep talk Jerry would give to his employees combined elements of Horatio Alger and Norman Vincent Peale in a form that made it look as if he was forever blowing his own horn. Jerry's attempts at homespun "If I did it, you can too" wisdom turned off his staff by setting performance standards that most felt they could not meet.

After spending roughly two weeks with Jerry and his senior executives, I asked him to try a new approach to engendering support. Instead of trying to motivate through example, I suggested, he might tell his people that he was "stumped" by a problem and was turning to them for some creative input. Further, I asked him to emphasize that his isolation from the day-to-day activities of his company had exacerbated his "mental block" and to announce that he planned to spend more time "watching and learning" in the weeks to come. Though Jerry did not see a dramatic change in his employees overnight, over the course of the next several months, there was a marked improvement in his ability to relate to and respond to them as people.

The difficulty most executives have in accepting the strategic value of pratfalls is that they are counter to a lifetime of training. "So you claim that by looking stupid I can manage better?" I'm asked. Or "Won't my dumbing-down prompt disloyalty when everyone in my firm decides they can run the shop better than their stupid CEO?" If my advice for executives looking for their employees to respect and like them were that they should "look stupid," of course that concern would be valid. But looking stupid is not the goal of a strategic pratfall; looking human is.

Steven Berglas, the director of Executive Development Resources, in Chestnut Hill, Mass., is a clinical psychologist.