Dale Dauten: Speaker, Author, Innovation Consultant [an error occurred while processing this directive]

Barack Obama, Master Salesman

"Creative things have to sell to get acknowledged as such. Steve Jobs didn't really set the direction of my Apple I and Apple II designs but he did the more important part of turning them into a product that would change the world." 
-Steve Wozniak


When Larry the Cable Guy - yes, Larry the Cable Guy - comes up with a juicy line, he'll congratulate himself by saying, "Now that there's funny, I don't care who you are."

A similar notion came to me when I was reflecting on Barack Obama's improbable presidential campaign, thinking, "Now that's impressive, I don't care who you are." And I could add another Larry line: "You don't have to be the Head Cashier at Walmart to understand that."

What got me thinking about the presidential campaign was Richard Wolffe's new book "Renegade - The Making of a President." And while it was surprisingly unlively reading, Wolffe's insider review offered up wisdom we can all apply, including lessons from Obama as master salesman.

After all, think about what community organizers do - they sell citizens on getting involved, then sell governments on providing services/resources to those citizens. Obama's boss in those days, Jerry Kellman, said of the job, "If you can't get people to tell you their story and build a relationship around the story, then you're never going to be any good in the long run."  And young community organizer Obama soon learned of that part of gathering stories was telling his own. He wrote, "And they'd offer a story to match or confound mine, a knot to bind our experiences together."

Any skilled salesperson can see him or herself in that remark. You listen. You learn. You find the point at which interests overlap. You create a new story, a future story, about what you can accomplish together.

It wasn't that Obama was selling breakthrough ideas; in fact, Wolffe writes, "His policy ideas were Democratic boilerplate." No, he was selling a relationship, the idea of working together. And he sold that idea by being a master of empathy. Campaign advisor David Axelrod said of him, "We'd be in deep Southern Illinois, in a place closer to Little Rock than Chicago, and he would do extraordinarily well. He'd say, 'These folks are just like my grandparents from Kansas,' and talk about how his grandfather was in Patton's army. He can go into an inter-city church and understand their experience. And he can go into a tony suburban area and understand them, being a Harvard Law guy."

Later, when the presidential nomination was his, he could sit down with Hillary Clinton supporters and tell them they "...are not alone in drawing inspiration from her campaign. My own daughters now take the possibility of a woman being president for granted in a way that they might not have, had she not run." No wonder her supporters couldn't stay mad at him.

And while he was publicly disagreeing with General Petraeus about Iraq war strategy, he was publicly empathizing with him: "In his role as commander on the ground, not surprisingly, he wants to retain as much flexibility as possible. If I were in his shoes, I'd probably feel the same way." The salesman disagrees by agreeing, by understanding self-interest and redrawing it.

Obama understood what the great salespeople understand: you take the past to the future. You hear a story, then tell a story, then sell a story; you sell a better future, together.


(Next time:  Obama the boss.)

 * *

Dale Dauten is the founder of The Innovators' Lab.  His latest book is "(Great) Employees Only: How Gifted Bosses Hire and De-Hire Their Way to Success" (John Wiley & Sons).  Please write to him in care of King Features Syndicate, 300 W. 57th ST, 15th Fl, New York, NY 10019, or at dale@dauten.com.


Copyright © 2009, King Features Syndicate

Popular Past Columns

  • Quotations From The Corporate Curmudgeon
  • The Whiners and the Hummers
  • What the Human Resources Department Won't Tell You
  • The Clerk With The Smirk
  • A Commencement Address You'll Never Hear
  • The Second Annual Commencement Address I'll Never Be Asked To Give
  • Back to Dale's Columns