The Humorous Leader

“Next to power without honor, the most dangerous thing in the world is power without humor.” – Eric Sevareid

My client was a member of a leadership team reporting to Jim, a hard-charging, results-oriented leader who delivered a direct punch when he thought it necessary.  The operating plan reviews were viewed as an especially stressful time, with members of the leadership team presenting the performance of their businesses. It was not uncommon for Jim to pass judgment and admonish team members publically.  My client’s business experienced a difficult year, as several of his long standing contacts had either retired or transitioned to other roles.  Their successors had decided to place their accounts with their own preferred vendors.

Needless to say, my client was concerned and anxious about his upcoming review.  However, he carried abundant charm and a disarming sense of humor.  He presented himself at the appointed time for the operating plan review meeting carrying a small bag that no one paid attention to.  It was a brutal meeting, and Jim was in a feisty mood as the organization had underperformed and he had an analyst tele-conference confronting him the following week.  He let his displeasure be known to all and publically derided the presenters.  When the person to my client’s left started his presentation, he excused himself and left the room.  He went up to his hotel room to change into a new outfit.  He came down to the conference room where the reviews were being held, stood outside, and opened the door slightly so he could hear the proceedings.  When he heard his colleague finish his presentation and it was his turn to speak, he heard his colleagues asking where he had gone and whether they should proceed without him.  At that moment, he entered the room wearing a bullet proof vest and other protective equipment from head to toe and carrying a white flag in one hand and a sign in the other saying  “I am sorry boss, I promise to do better next year…”  The room exploded with laughter, and the tension that had been felt so intensely just prior to his entry suddenly started to melt.

Well-placed and effective humor is a powerful ingredient of leadership.  In my client’s case it was used to diffuse dysfunctional tension and to create a different and more productive climate.  There are many other ways that humor can serve a leader.  Outlined below is a partial list.

  1. Humanizes and makes the leader more approachableIn particular, self-deprecating humor can go a long way in making the leader appear genuine, reachable, and likeable.  Warren Buffet’s sense of humor has helped frame him as a leader who is an everyday kind of person, genuine, approachable, and believable.  His disarming and down-to-earth humor is exemplified by quotes such as “I buy expensive suits, they just look cheap on me” or “you only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out”.
  2. Affords an opportunity for the leader to role model behavior that creates a positive and high performing culture/team – Too many leaders confuse great leadership with astern seriousness, lack of emotion/feelings, and a brand of “just the fact please…” that disconnects them from their followers. Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis ground breaking work on emotional intelligence show that our brains carry a number of “mirror neurons” that function to mirror or mimic what another person is doing.  So in a sense, followers often quite literally mirror what their leaders do.  Or as they state “ A boss who is self-controlled and humorless will rarely engage those neurons in his team members, but a boss who laughs and sets an easygoing tone puts those neurons to work, triggering spontaneous laughter and knitting his team together in the process. A bonded group is one that performs well, as our colleague Fabio Sala has shown in his research. He found that top-performing leaders elicited laughter from their subordinates three times as often, on average, as did mid-performing leaders. Being in a good mood, other research finds, helps people take in information effectively and respond nimbly and creatively. In other words, laughter is serious business.” 1
  3. Effectively communicates a message in a manner that is memorable and lasting – For example, during a St. Patrick’s Day reception, president Obama was presented with a certificate of Irish heritage by the Irish Prime Minister. “This will have a special place of honor alongside my birth certificate,” Obama deadpanned, hinting at the on-going conversation of his citizenship.

Humor must be used with judgment and discretion.  Ill-advised use of humor can result in serious damage to the leader’s reputation.  Examples include:

  1. Humor that is insensitive or offensive to a group of people – Typical examples include sexist, racist, and patronizing comments.  For example, the former Italian Prime Minister Sylvio Berlusconi, in response to allegations of a philandering life style, replied “It’s better to like beautiful girls than to be gay.”
  2. Humor that is out of context with the environment or cultureDuring President Bush’s speech at a White House Correspondents Association dinner in 2004, he narrated a slide show that included a photo of himself hunting around in the Oval Office. He went on to say, “Those weapons of mass destruction gotta be somewhere.”  This was seen by many as being insensitive to the military personnel and their families making the ultimate sacrifice for their country, under the false premise of the existence of weapons of mass destruction.
  3. Humor that is badly timedFor example, a leader I was working with had a nervous habit of making jokes as ice breakers. This habit was not received well in overseas cultures where it takes longer for relationships to progress to a point where one can joke or use puns.

Questions for on line conversation:

  1. How have you used humor in your leadership presence?
  2. What have been the results?
  3. What are some of your thoughts and suggestions in this regard?
1. Goleman D, Boyatzis R. Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership. Harvard Business Review. September 2008.

About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

3 Responses to The Humorous Leader

  1. Arends, Jason says:

    Kaveh-Well done! Thanks for the good reminder…Jason

    Jason D. Arends
    Vice President
    B E R N S T E I N
    A Unit of AllianceBernstein L.P.
    • (312) 696-7888 fax (312) 696-7979

  2. Olga says:

    Great article i read it with big pleassure 🙂

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