What Everyone Can Learn From John Edwards

Like other success stories, Edwards may have developed a "hero complex" that made him feel invincibile.

John Edwards arrives at a federal courthouse in North Carolina.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect the Edwards' verdict.

This guy could have been president?

Anybody paying attention to the trial of former senator and presidential candidate John Edwards has to be startled at the self-destruction of the one-time political star. Edwards, a wunderkind litigation attorney and self-made multimillionaire, once seemed to have the charisma and intelligence of former president Bill Clinton without the baggage. But Edwards' own baggage was there all along, and it finally landed on him like an anvil in a Warner Brothers cartoon.

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Edwards, who was John Kerry's vice-presidential nominee during the 2004 election and a credible contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, has apparently escaped legal punishment in an elaborate scheme to conceal his affair with former campaign videographer, Rielle Hunter, whom he impregnated in 2007 while married to Elizabeth Edwards. A North Carolina jury found Edwards not guilty on one count, and the judge in the case declared a mistrial on five other counts. But Edwards will suffer a different kind of punishment, since he has made himself a poster boy for self-importance and a late-night laughingstock for years to come.

It's trite to say the whole Edwards affair is tawdry. Surreal is more like it. The otherwise-bright Edwards apparently thought nobody would find out that he was sneaking off to hotel rooms with his mistress during a busy campaign, assigning aides to dream up elaborate dodges, and perhaps using campaign contributors to unwittingly provide her upscale homes and a BMW.

In one sense, Edwards' comedown is a case of old-fashioned hubris, with the former senator mistakenly believing he was exempt from the rules that govern others. But there are many reasons smart people do stupid things and subvert their own success, and it's not just epic figures like Edwards or Clinton who suffer from such phenomena. A lot of ordinary people do, too, which is why the Edwards case can be instructive for less prominent people who are simply hoping to get ahead or climb out of a rut.

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For my new book, Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success, I researched the differences between resilient people who recover readily from setbacks, and others who seem to wallow in regret or denial. Edwards has more in common with wallowers than with rebounders. Above all, he seems to have externalized the blame for the trouble he created, faulting the media and political opponents for their eagerness to expose his affair with Hunter, instead of recognizing his own mistake in conducting the affair and deceiving others about it.

Externalizing blame is dangerous because it prevents an accurate assessment of what caused a problem. And without an accurate assessment, you can't fix the problem. You may even make it worse. Recognizing your own flaws is a hard thing to do, especially for people surrounded by admirers and yes-men, as Edwards apparently was.

In this regard, he's similar to Richard Fuld, the intense Wall Street executive who built Lehman Brothers from a rump firm into a powerhouse. Fuld deserved credit for Lehman's success, but he also convinced himself that a raft of problems plaguing Lehman were caused by competitors, the press or the government, not by the huge and foolish risks he and his firm had taken. As Lehman crumbled in 2008, Fuld refused to accept facts that others saw clearly. His delusions may even have prevented a rescue of Lehman.

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There's another phenomenon that psychologists call the "paradox of power," which occurs when the qualities that help people become successful in the first place disappear after they've made it big. One quality that contributes toward success, for example, is empathy toward others, which helps leaders develop a following—and politicians win votes.

But research has shown that power and authority tend to erode empathy and turn once-compassionate people impulsive and selfish. Edwards, like Clinton, succeeded as a politician because of his populist appeal and light touch with ordinary folks. By the time of his affair with Hunter, however, he had become callous toward his wife and manipulative toward friends, such as Andrew Young, the aide Edwards tasked with keeping Hunter underground. Many of us know people who fit the same profile.

Edwards's career success may also have given him a kind of hero complex, allowing him to believe that it was his own innate ability, not luck or circumstance or help from others, that made him rich and popular.

"Someone who has marched steadily through a string of successes can easily come to feel like a hero, able to fix any problem single-handedly," Joshua Margolis and Paul Stoltz wrote in a 2010 Harvard Business Review article.

But a string of impressive victories can also undermine the humility, self-awareness and grit that make people resilient. The obvious irony is that too much success can leave a person shell-shocked when something goes wrong, and even amplify failure.

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There are a lot of ways people can correct the flaws that make them more prone to stumble, but sometimes it simply takes a major failure to awaken people to their own weaknesses. As I explain inRebounders, such failures can be crucible moments that teach valuable lessons and make greater success possible in the future. Or they can become ruinous episodes that leave people embittered and defeated.

The difference is how you respond to your own failure. Bill Clinton, by most accounts, has done an impressive job of rejuvenating his reputation through relief work and other good deeds. Edwards, at 58, is certainly young enough to rehabilitate himself. But he'll need to start by acknowledging that he screwed up, instead of looking for ways to offload the blame.

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  • Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To SuccessFollow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.