- The Washington Times - Monday, August 28, 2000

ATLANTA As waves of youngsters head back to school, it might be tempting to suggest that popularity doesn't matter. After all, the rugged individualist is an American icon.

But popularity does matter, even and perhaps especially in adulthood. As Sally Field once gushed when she accepted an Oscar as best actress: "You like me."

Popularity rules. People who play the popularity game often become leaders in government or business, movie stars, advertising pitchmen, the president of the local garden club, the person on everybody's guest list.

A study by the Center for Creative Leadership, a business consulting group based in Greensboro, N.C., discovered that the biggest reason executive careers derail is an inability to be a popular leader.

For instance, this year's presidential race will focus only partly on issues. It ultimately may become, as in past elections, a popularity contest. People vote for people they like.

It has been 64 years since Dale Carnegie published his book "How to Win Friends and Influence People," which has sold at least 14 million copies. The Dale Carnegie Center of Excellence, based in Atlanta, helps 2,000 people annually with their "people skills."

"People who know how to make people like them have a tremendous advantage in life," said Roger van Bakel, an editor with the Ad Age Group, a New York-based collection of advertising and marketing publications. "People want to work with them. People want to hire them… . I think that rugged American individualism is a bunch of crock."

Popular people don't even have to be particularly good at what they do, he said.

Russian tennis player Anna Kournikova has never won a singles title on the professional tour. Yet Forbes magazine lists her as one of the richest athletes in the world because her attractive looks make her a sought-after commercial endorser. In fact, Miss Kournikova earns more each year than Martina Hingis, the top-ranked women's player.

"Because she is incredibly hot, she makes more money than Martina Hingis," Mr. van Bakel said. "Likability is the name of the game in advertising."

The more popular a business executive, research suggests, the greater the chance of success. A 1996 study by the Center for Creative Leadership, seeking to learn why some business executives succeed while others fail, determined that most executives who failed to advance did so because they lacked "people" skills.

"A lot of these managers were good," said Jean Leslie, co-author of the study. "They knew the ins and outs of their job, but they were considered demanding, aloof. They isolated themselves from others and didn't have empathy."

Successful business executives displayed "interpersonal savvy," she said. They were good listeners, made themselves available to others and were supportive of other people's ideas.

"A lot of the work of more senior executives is relationship-oriented," Miss Leslie said. "The technical skills become less important than the interpersonal relationships."

Even the sharpest managers can fall when they lose favor with their employees or their bosses. Lee Iacocca, former president of Ford Motor Co. and by all measures an excellent business executive, was fired after helping introduce the fabulously successful Mustang. When Mr. Iacocca asked his boss why, Henry Ford II reportedly replied, "I just don't like you."

Cultivating popularity is crucial in politics as well. Perhaps no other U.S. president in recent years has been lauded as much as Ronald Reagan. But Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political science professor, said Mr. Reagan was widely considered to lack knowledge of policy and foreign affairs.

"If you don't have popular support, no matter how good your ideas, no matter your knowledge, you're not going to be able to lead Congress or lead the people," he said.

A popular person doesn't even have to be a celebrity to exert tremendous influence, says Malcolm Gladwell, author of "The Tipping Point," a book that explores the power of ordinary people and events to spark social transformations.

Such people Mr. Gladwell calls them "connectors" wield tremendous power, he thinks. That's the reason Paul Revere, not William Dawes, is remembered today, he said. Both men took a midnight ride on the same night in opposite directions to warn people that the British were coming. But nobody listened to Mr. Dawes because he was unknown.

"People listened to Paul Revere because they all knew him," Mr. Gladwell said. "He had the biggest Rolodex in New England."

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