Why Social Climbing Is The Leader’s Biggest Mistake (Obama Case Study)

Why is social climbing so harmful for a leader?

This article will answer that question -plus what you should do instead of social climbing-.

What is Social Climbing?

Social climbing is the use of socially aggressive behavior to elevate one’s position, lower someone else position or, most often, both -ie.: raising one’s position at someone else’s expenses.

Such socially aggressive behavior can take the form of derision, bullying, backstabbing, isolating, physically isolating or verbal assault.

Also read:

Obama’s Social Climbings

These are the most typical social power moves people engage when they social climb.

Many of which Obama used over and over:

1. Piling Up on the Weak: Bullying

Of all the Status Power Plays, this takes the crown as the most heinous.

It’s bad enough to status jockey with your peers, but picking on the weakest to score an easy win and look cool and powerful is simply low, low, low.

Bullying can be either physical or verbal, and it’s more about social status than about bullies’ insecurities as many psychologists say (CNN study).

To me, this kind of thinking is the sign of excuse making mindset.
Someone is mean or violent and someone who’s afraid of standing up for himself says “deep down he’s really just a little scared and insecure maybe”.

Well, maybe he is.
Maybe not though.
But for sure it’s because he’s an ahole and for sure you’re a pussy if you let him behave like that without even trying to do something about it.

The difference between bullying and all the other categories below is that here we’re witnessing a full-on and direct attack. The others instead tend to be more hidden.
Bullying confers the following social points to the misguided perpetrator(s):

  1. Strengthen the group by creating an out-group
  2. Increase the bully’s own self-confidence
  3. Raise the value of the group (by communicating people like the victim(s), are not good enough to be in it)
  4. Confers social power to the bully: he can harass with impunity

2. Throw Social Weight Around

Throwing social weight around is a common -and seemingly benign- Status Power Play.

You throw your social weight around when you use your position to pile social pressure on others.
This makes the person socially higher up feeling strong and powerful and it often embarrasses or diminishes the one on the receiving end.

Throwing social weight around confers social status by highlighting the perpetrator’s position by showing how giggly/embarrassed/shy/weak at the knee people are around can get.

Many of us have been guilty of it, and I know that I have. It feels particularly good when people are not very used to their social power, so that wielding that invisible weapon for the first time feels exciting and builds social confidence.

A typical example is when we make jokes about someone in a group and most people are laughing.
Except the person on the receiving end who is instead uncomfortable.

And what do many people do?

Of course, they keep making those jokes.

The group keeps laughing, increasing the social standing of the person who makes them laugh and all, of course, at the expense of the butt end of the joke.

See what’s happening in the video?

The people start laughing at the poor girl, who’s so embarrassed and overwhelmed she has a typical ostrich reaction: hiding her face.

Obama didn’t go in saying “I’m gonna embarrass her”, quite the opposite, he wanted to help.
But he ended up doing just the opposite when he caved in to the sirens promising cool social points.

So he pointed at her and cracked a joke for the amusement of the bystanders. In that moment, he was basically communicating “look at her how embarrassed she is for having fallen off stage in my presence”.

3. Delivering Hurtful Remarks (Masked as Jokes)

Delivering hurtful remarks is one of the nastiest Social Power Plays because it is often less focused on building one’s own social status than on tearing down others.

The idea is that, if you take social status away from others, but keep yours more or less intact, then you still gain because someone else has less status now.

It can also be concocted in a way though that you look good by comparison, as in the case below.

Obama attacks the republicans, all of them, by saying they can’t handle “a bunch of CNBC moderators”.

This is a heavy attack which makes him look good because in a way he is saying that he can handle world leaders and he would easily chew those CNBC moderators like nobody’s business. He also looks good by taking away status from Republicans, while democrat’s status stays intact.

In doing so, however, Obama is not only taking a jab at all Republican candidates, but at the same time he is also lowering the status of all the CNBC moderators, making them look like weak and easy to dispatch. Nasty.

It’s neatly masked as a joke though, so that people laugh at it.

Notice also Obama uses a Strawman technique here (which you can check it on this YouTube video).

4. Physically Exclude, Ignore or Reject

An easy and obvious way of raising one’s status is to ignore, reject or leave someone out in the cold.

When someone rejects you, ignores you or turn their back to you they are communicating you are not valuable enough for them, not worth of their attention, or not good enough to be in their group. A rejection immediately places the rejecter above the rejected in the social hierarchy.

Sometimes women will do this by stop talking to you or turning around or raising their hand in front of you, maybe even very theatrically if their goal is to let everyone know they are rejecting you (nasty move).

Most of the time it’s physical, but sometimes it can be verbal too.
For example, once I was at a company party with a group of three, and one of the two higher ups suddenly blurted out:

Well, it was good seeing you

And kept looking at me as if to imply I was supposed to move.

Note though in this case, it’s not the girl who’s being mean or anything, it’s the guy who is being a social burden.

5. Flaunt Superiority With Punishment Threats

The leader position sometimes carries with it the possibility of retaliating or using physical or military force.

The basic concept is that he can do more damage to you than you could possibly do it to him. If he ever wanted, that is. He might also be nice and just imply it ;).

The Social Status gain here comes from the display of sheer force: if you’re the one who can resort to force and violence and win, then it’s difficult attacking your position.

Obama in the video below is veeeery subtle about it. Try to watch it before reading below and see if you can spot it.

Did you try?

So here it is then: Obama has a big-ish ego and always feels the need to hit back and assert his status.

When the guy says “don’t touch my girlfriend” Barack is a bit lost and his first reaction

Obama: I wasn’t really planning to

This is a defensive statement.

But as he regains his bearings, he goes on the attack.
First, he says

Obama: Mike is such a fool

Which was unnecessary and mortifies the already anxious woman.

And he then adds

Obama: fortunately the president was nice about it

And that was the hidden threat (also see: covert power moves).

It was the implication that he, the president, could have NOT been nice about and unleashed some consequences for the rascal who dared to joke around the president.

6. Exploit Mistakes to Self Aggrandize

This another nasty one.

It highlights the mistake someone has done to make him look poorer and, by comparison, making us look better.

I have often seen this one in relationships, especially from men who feel the need to somehow reassert their intellectual superiority on the relationships (read combative relationships).

Needless to say, these aren’t great relationships.

In this clip the guy asked Obama a very silly question, something like plans about nuclear war with Russia.

So silly indeed it didn’t even deserve comments or wasting any time on.
But Obama pounces on the occasion, raising it to a worthy discussion point, if not only to make everyone laugh and gain some “smart ass social points”.

All at the expense of the heckler of course.
We could easily say that the guy had it coming for his nonsense quip, but the best course of action was different.

When someone has a (brain) fart the highest value behavior is to help them save face and move on.

Exploiting mistakes is weak, and even weaker when they come from easy to attack people.
Typical social status climbing behavior.

Why Leaders Must Avoid Social Climbing

Social climbing shows insecurity.

A leader, by definition, is a high status individual who sits at the top of a social group.

And if you’re “officially” at the top, you shouldn’t need Status Power Plays in the first place.

If you’re at the top and social climbing, you communicate you do not FEEL like you’re at the top.

And people around will feel like you are overcompensating.
That’s their insecurity.

They’re afraid someone might take their position. Their fear and insecurity, then leads to seeking the constant validation that comes with re-asserting their superiority.

The team that these leaders “lead” or the relationships they form tend to be combative and ripe with constant backstabbing and status jockeying.
Not good.

What do the high value leaders do, then? We’ll go over it more in detail eventually, but here’s an overview.
Effective leaders:

  • Build people up (not tear them down)
  • Address major challenges, but ignore minor ones
  • Help people save face
  • Make people feel good about themselves


Social climbing is an attempt at increasing one’s social standing by attacking and taking away other people’s value.

They are terrible for leaders because a leader, by his own position at the top, should not need to take away other people’s social value.
An effective leader should instead focus on improving his group, which comes in good part from building up the people in it.

As a final note, I used Obama as an example because he tends to be more subtle than many others. And as they say, when you train in hard mode, you dominate the medium and easy mode.

Scroll to Top