New York mayoral race

Anthony Weiner: Underdog or lone wolf?

June 24, 2013: 1:38 PM ET

Attracting attention and deserving it are not one and the same, and which side of that coin Weiner falls on remains to be seen.

By Deena Shanker

130624133438-anthony-weiner-614xa

FORTUNE -- Anthony Weiner likes to be the center of attention. And sitting in the audience at a New York City mayoral forum, featuring several less charismatic -- if not less qualified -- contenders, it's hard not to give it to him, whether he is waxing poetic on the "false choices" in the city's school bussing dilemmas, articulating his position on the new Citi Bike program (he's a fan), or cracking wise about his failed attempt to stand while all the other candidates remained in their seats. But attracting attention and deserving it are not one and the same. On which side of that coin does Weiner fall?

As a recent New York Times profile highlighted, Weiner has sought the spotlight since long before his Twitter scandal handed it to him on a silver platter. Describing him alternately as a "go-it-alone politician," an "attack dog," and even a passenger seat driver, the Times article portrayed a leader focused on himself as much as, if not more than, his own constituents. Certainly, some of the anecdotes were less than flattering, yet Weiner doesn't seem to shy from defining himself in similar terms. On Monday, at a mayoral forum hosted by the Coalition for Queens at the Museum of the Moving Image, for example, Weiner glibly told the audience, "I like the disrupter title."

The lone wolf politician is nothing new, especially in New York City. (Current Mayor Michael Bloomberg has waged his own fair share of battles without public consensus or support, from banning smoking almost everywhere to limiting the size of soda containers at restaurants and movie theaters.) Drive, ego, and autonomy are essential for anyone who wants to make it onto the ballot, let alone City Hall. This can be viewed as much as a positive as a negative, depending on the situation. According to Pamela Teagarden, founder of the Teagarden Group and an expert in management, "Politicians are going to be quick, decisive, autonomous people." A person who can be described as "dominant, assertive, and hard pushing," according to David Mayer, assistant professor at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, "fits our prototype for what it means to be seen as an effective leader."

MORE: Michael Moritz is not ready to retire

But there are pitfalls to the go-it-alone approach. According to Teagarden, as stress levels rise, some of the lone wolf's cognitive functions fall off the map. If a leader becomes more focused on his own personal stake in an outcome, rather than what is best for everyone, "strengths potentially become weaknesses because they're not bolstered by awareness," says Teagarden. "They flip from the light side to the dark side at that point," she adds.

Furthermore, Mayer notes, alienating potential allies in the name of a short-term win can hurt leaders in the long run. "You can do all these negative things because you're well known, but at some point, that will catch up to you," he says. Weiner's aversion to teamwork may explain the cold reception he is getting from other local Democrats, like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo who answered, "shame on us," when asked to comment on the prospect of a Mayor Anthony Weiner.

Just the same, Weiner seems to be deploying this "go-it-alone" image rather successfully. Even without institutional support from labor unions or political clubs, he placed second in recent polls for the Democratic primary race. And, according to Ben Max, founder of DecideNYC.com, the candidate has "a strong enough public following to be considered a serious contender." Max adds, "From where I sit, Weiner has as good a chance as any of the five to make it past primary day."

So how is it possible for someone to go from national laughingstock to serious political contender? Americans love a good redemption story, and Weiner is playing that card, implicitly referencing his well-known skeletons in the closet (or, err, selfies in the Twitterverse?) by sending out emails with the subject line, "I am the underdog ... "

To capitalize on what is known as the "pratfall effect," Weiner may be hoping that his mistakes humanize him -- we like people better when we know they're not perfect. His indiscretions may have made him an underdog, but it's possible that they also, somehow, made him more likeable, too.

MORE: World's biggest companies: Still xenophobic, after all these years

The other explanation for Weiner's surprising dominance in the race is what Mayer has dubbed the "Kobe effect." Comparing Weiner to other fallen-from-grace public figures like Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods, and of course, Kobe Bryant, Mayer notes that oftentimes it's not a heartfelt apology that the public is looking for; it's just a good performance. "Competence seems to trump ethicality in terms of, 'Do I really want to follow this leader or not?'"

Weiner will need to prove to New Yorkers that he can pull a Kobe, or a Clinton, or a Woods, and become an effective mayor, despite his lackluster record as a congressman. As primary candidate Adolfo Carrión, Jr., put it recently to Weiner, "You can be a disrupter, but are you adding value?"

Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.