Leadership, Obama, and the Art of the Schmooze
Schmooze factor. Sounds silly, right? But it is a critical behavioral component of leadership that is all too often ignored.
President Obama has been criticized for not hanging out, schmoozing, and making small talk with the key players in Washington. Obama doesn’t “have the schmooze gene,” says Jonathan Alter in his new book, The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies. “The backslapping, stroking, gripping, and grinning that were second nature to politicians like Clinton and Biden [are] often chores for Obama.”
The Washington Post weighs in: “Obama still isn’t very good at using his personal charm to achieve political success. Yet, it may be one of the few strategies the president has left.”
This can easily seem trite and irrelevant. Schmoozing isn’t what leadership is all about. Real leadership is about serious business, not small talk. Chit-chat on the golf course may be acceptable, but schmoozing seems a little low-brow to some.
Or is it?
Take Lyndon Johnson, whom many consider a connoisseur of small talk, schmoozing, and one-liners. If it weren’t for his perpetual interaction with Congress, he wouldn’t have been able to pass Medicare. As James T. Patterson writes in The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America, “LBJ spent hours on the phone with congressmen and senators, held frequent one-on-one meetings with leaders, and hosted regular Tuesday morning breakfast gatherings at the White House.” Johnson used small talk as a tool to win people over, establish trust, and move agendas forward.
Entrepreneurs must accept that schmoozing helps get things done. It’s the grease that helps turns the wheels. It’s your way, as a leader, to establish trust between you and your team.
By schmoozing, you show your vulnerability and your doubt, while being open to the vulnerability of others. It creates a social intimacy apart from the routine of work.
But how do you create such intimacy?
Through a little talk. Through off-the-cuff discussions that are often not directly related to your work or agenda. They are moments when you reveal glimpses of your authentic self.
Schmoozing is a tool by which we let others see behind the curtain. If they like what they see, they will be more likely to trust you and give you the benefit of the doubt.
Schmoozing gives others the opportunity to open up to you. It gives you an appreciation for the subtleties of the positions of others.
It allows you to open up by being self-effacing and self-reflective without feeling there is a cost. It allows you to discuss issues, events, and experiences unrelated to the task at hand, but which will give a sense of your totality.
Schmoozing is not some sideshow glad-handing. It’s an opportunity to be intimate. Through that intimacy you engage in authenticity and build trust. Through schmoozing you build up the interpersonal assets that you may need in times of conflict and crisis. It is the chip you can play later when you need them on your side.
To schmooze effectively, you don’t have to mimic the antics of LBJ. On the other hand, you may want to hang out and chat more than President Obama has done. What you need to do is find appropriate, informal moments to show curiosity about others and share who you are beneath your formal veneer.
SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies
Samuel B. Bacharach is the McKelvey-Grant professor in the department of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School, and is director of Cornell's Institute for Workplace Studies in New York City. Among his books are Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. His latest volume, A Good Idea Is Not Enough: Leading for Change and Innovation, will be published this November by BLG.