by John Baldoni

Smile As You Lead

Aug 29, 20056 mins
IT Leadership

“Smile and the whole world smiles with you” was an adage that my grandfather loved to quote, especially when taking someone’s picture. As a newspaperman in the 1920s and 1930s, my grandfather worked for big city dailies until he started his own paper. He knew the value of pictures and as an entrepreneur he knew that paying customers, either as readers or advertisers, wanted to see themselves look good. It was a lesson that he took with him to public relations, and watching my grandfather work a crowd was a lesson in courtesy, manners and you guessed it, big smiles. Smiling can be a valuable leadership trait; it demonstrates a capacity for emotion that all of us want to see in someone in charge.

Smiles Connect People

This lesson came home to me as I was watching a community college president on television. The segment began with footage of Christine Johnson of Denver Community College speaking at commencement; her smile was radiant. That same smile shone albeit with less wattage as she was interviewed about budget cutbacks at her school. At first it may have seemed irreverent of Dr. Johnson to be smiling, but in reality it was exactly the right thing to do. Her words indicated understanding of the situation; her smile communicated her warmth and sincerity. Her bearing convinced me, just from watching her on television; this was a leader that students, faculty and community respected. And to prove the power of her smile, the program concluded with a piece of good news: no budget cuts were planned for the coming year. Coincidence, yes, but it does demonstrate leaders who look on the bright side can effect positive change, not simply by smiling, but by maintaining a positive outlook as well as fighting for what they believe is right.

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Smiling is a simple act. To paraphrase Lauren Bacall in the classic film, To Have and Have Not, “just part your lips and glow.” In fact it’s so simple that even CEOs can learn to do it. In truth many people in leadership positions forget to do it. Yet doing it is something that you will establish rapport with an individual, a group or an audience. And for that reason cracking a smile is worth doing. Here are some suggestions for using your smile to a leadership advantage.

Smile when you speak in public. One of the lasting lessons in speech coaching is to ask presenters to smile when they take the podium or enter the room. Smiling does two things; one, it connects the individual to the audience; two, it relaxes the speaker. When you smile you indicate respect for the listener. Not all occasions will call for smiles, but most business situations call for a smile in some degree, if only as a small acknowledgement of the audience. And when the news is especially good, such as the launch of a new product or service, a grin is appropriate. It conveys enthusiasm that is contagious. It is wholly appropriate to smile during media interviews. Even jaded reporters whose job it is to look beneath the surface for the truth will appreciate a speaker who is willing to smile and laugh. It’s no secret that professional athletes who smile, and coaches, too, are the ones that get more acclaim than those with a dour countenance.

Smile when you coach. A smile is an intimacy, but one that is suitable for both genders, especially in coaching situations. As managers are asked more and more to be coaches, it is vital to establish a connection. Open the coaching session with a smile, especially when you have some tough but constructive criticism to deliver. You want to acknowledge the humanity of the individual. If you smile first you open the door to dialogue; if you glare you typically shut people down. They either cower in fear or get their back up in resistance, and in either case they do not listen. Smiling at least opens the door for some listening.

Smile during tough times. It was Franklin Roosevelt’s jaunty smile that cut through the dreariness of the Great Depression as later the Second World War. FDR was not above worry or care, but he knew that if his face reflected the toughness of the circumstance he would drag people down. As president he saw part of his job as giving hope. The smile with the upturned cigarette holder is a lasting image of optimism in the bleakest of times. So if you have tough news to give, deliver it but take a moment to smile and take some questions. You might even crack a joke to lighten the tension. That should crack the lips of most people in the audience. Smiling during tough times demonstrates the humanity of the moment, a big plus for every organization that is struggling.

Smiling Moments

There are times, of course, when smiling is not appropriate. When you are confronted with stories about harassment, assault or bullying, smiling indicates acquiescence and must be avoided. Similarly smiling at off color jokes, especially those that denigrate individuals or groups, again indicates approval. That said, times of sadness call for resolve. You can indicate a sense of resolve with a smile, one that communicates empathy. Most of us do this instinctively in our private lives, but sometimes forget to do it when we get to work.

Smiling may seem like a small thing, and it is, but when you think of some of our great leaders, it was their smile that radiated their charm. Ronald Reagan was a beamer; his smile was incandescent and drew people toward him. Among corporate leaders, those who smile include Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon. Meg Whitman, CEO of eBay, too is often seen with a big broad grin. These are business leaders who understand the power of their presence and smiling is one way they connect to their people. So my grandfather was right after all, smile and the whole world does smile with you.

John Baldoni is a leadership communications consultant who works with Fortune 500 companies and nonprofits. He is a frequent keynote and workshop speaker as well as the author of five books on leadership, including the latest: Great Motivation Secrets of Great Leaders. He invites readers to visit his leadership resource website at