Fight or Flight Leadership

In my work with organizations and leaders, it is impossible not to note the symmetry between the fight or flight reactions of the most primitive parts of our brain with the instincts of organizations and leaders under stress.  Millions of years of evolution formed the frontal lobe in our brains responsible for more deliberate planning and mature thinking.  Outstanding leaders and organizations seem to have the ability to slow things down to utilize their frontal lobes.  However, many organizations and leaders have a tendency to regress into a reflexive mindset that prevents them from more rationale and longer-range planning and thinking.

To better draw this comparison, let us first examine how our brain operates. Research shows that when the hypothalamus, a part of the limbic1 nervous system, tells the sympathetic2 nervous system to kick into gear, the overall effect is that the body speeds up, tenses up, and becomes generally very alert. The sympathetic nervous system sends out impulses to glands and smooth muscles and tells the adrenal medulla to release epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline) into the bloodstream.

The sudden flood of epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dozens of other hormones causes changes in the body which include: an increase in heart rate and blood pressure; pupil dilation; constriction of veins in the skin, sending more blood to major muscle groups; increase in blood-glucose level; tensing up of muscles; relaxation of smooth muscle, allowing increase of oxygen into the lungs; the shut-down of nonessential systems (like digestion and immune system) to allow more energy for emergency functions; and increase in trouble on focusing on small tasks, helping the brain focus more directly on where the threat is coming from.3

These physical responses are intended to help survival of a dangerous situation by preparing you to either fight for your life (“fight”) or run for your life (“flight”). Much like the release of hormones commanded by the hypothalamus, organizations and leaders also generate instinctual commands to perceived threats and conditions that often produce suboptimal long-term results.

In 2000, when Pfizer decided to pursue a hostile takeover of Warner Lambert and the management of Warner Lambert resisted, they decided to take a win at any cost strategy.  At stake for Pfizer was the perceived loss of control in a co-marketing alliance of Lipitor which was accurately projected to be a multi-billion drug.  The Pfizer machinery went into a war-like stance.  Its organizational blood stream increased its flow, its pupils dilated, and all non-essential and distracting activities were put on hold. An army of several hundred lawyers were unleashed and money became no object.  In its haste to win, Pfizer missed the “enhanced severance package” provision at Warner Lambert.  A poison pill put in place by the previous CEO dictated that change of control would trigger compensation packages of up to 36 months of salary with maximum bonuses and immediate vesting of stock options for any leader whose job duties changed.  Pfizer’s fight instincts allowed it to win control of Warner Lambert.  However, by not slowing down to allow for more reflective and rational thinking, Pfizer spent millions more in enhanced severance packages than expected.  In addition, the best laid plans of Pfizer management and its lead merger consultancy Booz Allen to realize the cost savings associated with synergies of combining the two organizations, were significantly delayed or put aside since meaningful structural or job duty changes automatically triggered further financially crippling enhanced severance packages.

Leaders also get emotionally hijacked under stress, in effect assuming the fight or flight stance. It is precisely at these moments of inordinate stress and urgency that great leaders rise to the top, and the sub-optimal leaders revert to the more primitive parts of their brains.

This leadership quality was demonstrated during the height of the Cold War through the example of Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov, a retired lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defence Forces. On September 26, 1983, he was the duty officer at the command center, monitoring early-warning satellites over the United States. When the system reported that a nuclear missile was being launched from the United States, Petrov was situated at a critical point in the chain of command, overseeing the staff the monitored these incoming signals. Despite the electronic evidence, he declared the system’s indication to be a false alarm. This tense decision, made under enormous stress, is credited with having prevented an unprovoked retaliatory nuclear attack on the United States and its NATO allies that could have resulted in large-scale nuclear war. A later investigation confirmed that the satellite warning system had indeed malfunctioned, and had he reported incoming American missiles, his superiors might have launched an assault against the United States, precipitating a corresponding nuclear response from the United States. At that, time according to experts, the US–Soviet relationship had deteriorated to the point where the Soviet Union as a system — not just the Kremlin, not just Andropov, not just the KGB — but as a system, was geared to expect an attack and to retaliate very quickly to it. It was on trigger alert — very nervous and prone to mistakes and accidents. The false alarm that rang on Petrov’s watch could not have come at a more dangerous, intense time for US–Soviet relations. At that time, according to Oleg D. Kalugin, a former KGB chief of foreign counterintelligence, “the danger was in the Soviet leadership thinking, the Americans may attack, so we better attack first.” Petrov clearly accessed the frontal lobes of his brain to regulate himself for more rational action rather than allowing the more primitive limbic nervous system to highjack his emotions (Amygdala hijack).4


1. Limbic – evolutionarily primitive brain structures (

2. Sympathetic – involved in the stimulation of activities that prepare the body for action (

3. Understanding the Stress Response. Harvard Health Publications. ( March 2011.

4. Hoffman D. I Had a Funny Feeling in My Gut. Cold War Report. ( February 1999.

Questions for Online Conversation:

  1. Have you noticed which part of your brain is triggered under stress?
  2. What is your strategy for arresting “limbic highjack”
  3. How have recent examples of corporations, such as General Motors’ cover up of faulty ignition switches, reflected leadership under stress?

Mindful Leadership – Part II

Most leaders report that over time, they lose the roots that connected them to their values and passions.  Like the experiment in which the frog does not feel the gradual rise in the temperature of the beaker and eventually dies, leaders slowly lose their values and authentic selves.  As they rise in the organization, they gain more power, status, and wealth.  The external world surrounding them rewards outward signs of success and wealth.  The social fabric that once judged them on who they were and held them accountable now gives them a pass.  They are treated in special ways and are exempt from the normal codes of behavior that others are judged by.  Their sense of self-worth is validated through their status, power, and wealth.  In addition, the excessive time spent at work with colleagues and the addiction to stay connected to work-related issues blurs and destroys the healthy work versus home separation required to recompose and build resonance.  In private rooms and confidential conversations, it is not unusual for me to witness depression, addiction, burn out, tears/despair, broken lives, extreme loneliness, and spiritual and emotional bankruptcy.

The road to recovery is a slow and deliberate journey.  It starts with the leader surrendering and admitting that he or she is unfulfilled and asks for help.  This seems obvious.  However, many have practiced the art of deceiving themselves and others.  Their public persona shouts confidence, positivity, and inspiring leadership.  The ego that is now addicted to the worldly signs of success resists interventions aimed at change –  change that may require more time and focus away from work and working hard to build real, rewarding, and longer-term relationships – which can get them back to their core values, principles, and authentic selves that made each special.  The ego will demand status quo and create fears of being left behind, losing privilege, or losing the attention of powerful people.   Bill, the leader described in Part I of this posting finally admitted that he was unfulfilled and on the verge of a breakdown.

The next step requires the leader to engage in a disciplined process of self-reflection and examination in order to achieve meaningful insights.  Bill committed to our every two week, one hour session, and to calling me on an unscheduled basis if needed.  He committed to regular reflection and introspection, and to talk openly with his wife about his fears and insecurities, and to ask her to remind him of the person she had married to help him create conditions that would rekindle their original connection.

The leader must be ready to look at different perspectives and competing agendas and to make trade-off decisions that will better align them to their core.  Bill declared his working hours to his colleagues.  He told them that unless there was a real emergency, he would not be returning their emails or phone calls during the weekend or while on vacation.  He encouraged his team to do the same.  He spoke to his supervisor and explained that while he realizes that cutting back on travel may have consequences for his career, he was willing to take that risk.  Bill told him that he thought spending more time at home and using technology rather than in-person trips may actually improve his productivity and creativity.  To Bill’s surprise, his supervisor told him that it was his call and he would be judged as anyone else at year-end based on results, and not how he got there.

Finally, the leader must commit to practicing the new behaviors and to ask for help if he has difficulty following the regiment.  Real learning occurs only if it is practiced.  The brain literally creates budding neuro pathways for the new behaviors.  The new pathways compete with well established routines that have been long rewarded and therefore easier for brain to access.  It is only through repeated practice and reinforcement by the leader’s support system that these new behaviors take more permanent and sustainable form.  Bill and I talked regularly to focus on his progress, emotional barriers to practicing his new self, and ways to normalize the enormous challenges inherent in achieving longer-term behavioral change.  Bill’s wife was enormously helpful in providing emotional support, as well as guiding him to rediscover his authentic self, which was what had made him so attractive to her when they had first met.

Leaders are human.  They enter the work environment with inordinate passion, creativity, and purpose.  As leaders rise in their organizations, it is critical that they find support systems that regularly help them remember their core values and the unique gifts that led to their success. They remind her of who she is and what she stands for.  They provide a safe environment for her to share her vulnerabilities, hopes, and fears. They hold up a mirror that reflects how others see her, and they champion her as she tries challenging new behaviors that will fulfill her and make her a balanced and inspiring leader.


Questions for Online Conversation:

  1. Have you or others you know gone through the journey described in this two part series?
  2. What was it like?
  3. How did you address it?

Mindful Leadership – Part I

DalaiLamaI work with educated, sophisticated, well-travelled, and experienced leaders.  Many lead large groups of people and achieve amazing results.  However, I consistently notice that they expend significant portions of their energy on leadership at the work place, and minimize or outsource the role in their personal lives.  Many profess that their passion and the way they assess their sense of self-worth is related to the welfare of their families and their role/contributions to it, and fostering deep and long-term relationships are paramount to their happiness and well-being.  However, when the conversation focuses on energy expended or commitment to success in these areas, it becomes obvious that their actions don’t necessarily support their words. By and large, they have scant knowledge of child psychology/development, and they spend little time reading and becoming more accomplished in human relations and powerful conversations.  Many see areas relating to emotional and social competency as important, but they are areas they may compromise given their busy lives and work commitments.

I recently spoke to the spouse of a leader as part of the interviews I was conducting in order to coach him.  He told me that his family is the reason he works so hard and wants to succeed. He wants to provide for them and ensure that he shares a long and prosperous life with his wife, described as his long-time sweetheart.  Not so surprisingly, I had expected that his wife would describe him as a rare example of a C-suite executive with the ability to leave work behind when he entered the house; someone who was present and mindful during their time together; aware of what is important to her and the children.  I had visualized that he would go out of his way to make her and the children feel special, notice the little things that she did on a day-to-day basis to support him and his family, and show appreciation and do things that would in return really lift her spirit and be important to her.  In fact, I found out that my client could not turn off work and was absorbed by it.  His wife told me that she is often frustrated by his poor listening skills.  “Sometimes, I feel like I have to shake him on the shoulder to get him to be with us…”  She felt there was no separation for him between work and home, and felt like most of his colleagues at work were with them in their house every night.  “He talks and obsesses about them as if they are members of our family, and knows more about them than he knows about me and the children.  I can’t help feeling like we are taken for granted…”  She admitted that he does all of the nice formalities – holiday, birthday, Valentine’s, and anniversary presents and cards.  However, they felt to her like rituals since his conversations and level of curiosity were superficial.  He seemed not to care how she really felt or what it was like for her to juggle and balance the multiple areas of their life.  He seemed to outsource their family and friends to her and to follow suit, rather than being an engaged partner with her.  Not surprisingly, she told me that his teenage son only told him what he wanted to hear – how well he was doing in athletics, how popular he was, etc… Their elementary school-age daughter would not even bother to talk to him about anything of substance and saw him as an easy target for funding things she wanted to buy.  Both thought it was “cool” that they had a rich dad, as it made it easier for them to achieve social status in their schools.

As the coaching progressed and he started to trust me, he revealed that he felt lonely and unfulfilled.  He does not really open himself up to anyone because most of his time is spent at work, and he does not trust his colleagues with his vulnerabilities.  He said that he did not feel “whole” because he expends great physical, psychic, and emotional energy on work and on his team, but every time he feels like he is accomplishing something or getting close to someone, things within the organization change. The organization is re-organized, a project is changed or discontinued, or people are leaving or coming into the organization. This leaves him empty and he feels like he is on a treadmill that keeps on getting faster and faster, but not leading to anywhere.  He then starts to regurgitate what he could do, why certain things happen, and why so-and-so said this or that, and he just cannot turn it off when he gets home.  He told me there is just not enough of him left for his family.  “It’s not that I don’t care or love them.  They are my whole world.  I just feel like there is nothing left.  I just can’t get the gremlins from work to stop talking…”

I wish he was the only one, or just one of the few.  Sadly, this leader represents the norm at this level in an organization.  The advent of electronic gadgets such as smart phones and tablets has only exasperated the extent to which my clients feel unanchored and out of balance. They are reliving the past or planning the future, but never really being present with their “whole” self.  They are failing as leaders in the most important arenas of life – being a father, a partner to their spouses, using their skills and presence to make a difference in the world, and serving as role models to those with less privilege, education, social capital, and influence. 

In the next posting I will share my thoughts about the work leaders need to do to get reconnected to their values and core essence.  I will update you on the work that the leader discussed in this blog is doing to rediscover his “whole self”.


 Questions For On-Line Conversation:

  1. How would you coach the leader discussed in this blog?
  2. What are you doing to reconnect with your values and whole self?
  3. Do you have examples or stories that can provide further insights?

Leadership In a Vacuum

Our U.S. culture is consistently assessed as one of the most individualistic and masculine cultures in the world1. This means that our tendency is to give too much credit to the leader when things go well, and to place too much blame on the leader when results are not achieved.  However, in my work with leaders and their organizations, I continue to be amazed at the frequency with which organizations fail to create an environment that enables these talented leaders to succeed.

Most organizations do not proactively think through their current decision making, governance, portfolio, human resources, structures, and other aspects of their culture prior to investing in hiring seasoned and expensive talent.  Instead, they determine that a proven leader with experience and expertise will quickly diagnose issues, develop alternatives, secure approval, marshal the necessary resources, and achieve goals. This fallacy of leadership is expensive, disruptive, and de-motivating.

The chart below describes a holistic view of culture change.  Please note that leadership behavior is only one of the key levers that can be used to achieve an organization’s vision.

PIB Culture Wheel

Turnover costs are estimated at 25% of executive salary, plus benefits.  The cost of replacing a failed C-suite executive can easily be $1 million to $3 million2. New incumbents typically leave organizations where they have formed important relationships, gained lucrative salaries/benefits, and become comfortable with familiar cultures, to start a new position in a new organization with high levels of exuberance and energy.  They step into new surroundings that are unfamiliar to them and are rife with organizational and political landmines.  Consequently, it is critical for hiring managers and organizations to think proactively and reconfigure outdated and dysfunctional cultures, lest the new hire lose her motivation and reach levels of frustration that will result in low productivity and in higher doses separation.

A large pharmaceutical organization has invested significant energy in aspiring to change its culture to resemble “bio-tech” organizations.  More specifically, it has declared that in the future, its leaders should exhibit the following behaviors, among others:

  • Risk-taking
  • Accountability
  • Enterprise mindset
  • Openness and transparency
  • Patient-focus, including the ability to speed up decision-making by eliminating bureaucratic and unnecessary processes

A number of new employees were hired from bio-tech organizations, academia, and other large pharmaceuticals in order to accelerate this change (throwing talent at the problem).  These leaders report significant frustration and dismay at what they perceive as a broken promise.  They have experienced organizations bloated with complex and slow processes, and leadership teams that publically espouse the new vision but are resistant to meaningful change.  For example, when new scientists have more creative and “out of the box”  new product ideas,  they are told to continue to follow the traditional portfolio allocation and new product development processes with stage gates that are based on more conservative and traditional hurdles.  They find that they are not able to voice their own ideas in front of senior mangement.  Travel and outreach to the external scientific community is restricted through cost-control measures that have to be cleared at the highest levels in the organization.  In one case, a renowned scientist experienced a significant delay in getting approval for a trip to Europe where she was asked to present to a senior scientific audience. Significantly, these leaders were promised that they could hire and bring new and more innovative talent into the organization.  In reality, they discovered that separating low-performing existing talent required a lengthy and bureaucratic human resources review and approval process.  In addition, the cost-control measures prohibited them from adding new headcount.

Not so surprisingly, a number of these leaders are frustrated, feel underappreciated, lied to, and unproductive.  As a result, the organization is in danger of losing these leaders. The hoopla behind the “bio-tech” culture has taken a back seat to quarterly targets, Wall Street analyst projections, and defensive legal maneuvering to prolong the life of expiring patents.

Organizations should think clearly and proactively prior to hiring senior talent.  They should conduct an honest “change readiness” exercise that paints a detailed picture of the future and assesses the readiness of the senior management to change its beliefs and behaviors.  Management must go on record and commit to these changes prior to making the hiring decision.  One clear indicator, and one that I encourage my clients to pursue, is the wording of the announcement letter introducing a new hire.  The announcement letter should not only communicate the background and qualifications of the new hire and the level of excitement of the receiving organization, but equally the specific changes that will be put in place and the level of authority that the new hire will enjoy. For example, a more streamlined reporting and decision making process or the ability to hire up to X number of new people and to restructure the organization as he/she sees fit.  Furthermore, organizations should invest in a thoughtful on-boarding program and transitional coaching in order for the new hire to be able to adjust to the new surrounding in a way that is natural, and help avoid early mistakes that could establish longer-term negative perceptions.

In short, the challenge for leaders as they acquire and on-board new talent is to ensure they are not leading in a vacuum, but preparing their grounds for new talent. The ability to understand an organization’s culture, articulate it to prospective leaders, and actually live it on a daily basis is the cornerstone to creating an environment that enables leaders to succeed.

Questions For On-Line Conversation:

  1. How should organizations prepare the grounds for new talent?
  2. What are the biggest obstacles and blockers?
  3. What are your recommendations?


1. The Hofstede Centre. Accessed February 3, 2014.
2. Byrnes, Nanette and Kileyy, David. “CEOs: Hello, Your Must Be Going.” BusinessWeek. 11 Feb. 2007.

Year-end Reflections

More than at any other time in my 35+ years of business experience, I have noticed the profound challenges leaders face in honoring their soul (or North Star as I prefer to call it) while performing their roles of stewarding the financial success of their organizations. 

Today, more and more leaders are hearing competing voices dominating their inner conversation in hopes of tipping the balance of power. Through my personal one-on-one executive coaching sessions, I often work with clients to reconcile these tensions. Below are a few of the more frequent, compelling, and often times, simply gut-wrenching inner discussions that leaders face.

(1)   Nurture vs Performance – Often times, leaders struggle with the challenge of balancing the fulfillment that comes from nurturing, teaching, and mentoring employees, and enabling them to reach their potential, which is often at odds with the performance orientation that exists in many organizational cultures. Organizations espouse that talent and their commitment to their employees are their greatest distinguishers; however, this message is not carried though in practice.  Often when the “real business” conversations commence during operating plan reviews or presentations to boards, leadership styles that are more caring, emotional, and less aligned with rational, objective, and efficient styles are perceived as “risky”.

My clients confess that during these times of high pressure, they often feel bulldozed and even violated, but find themselves feeling helpless and paralyzed by fear and anxiety.  On the one hand, they intuit that not speaking up or acting on behalf of their organizations is violating their pledge as servant leaders. On the other hand, they worry that they may be labeled as “too soft”, “wearing their emotions on their sleeves”, “not able to make tough decisions or have difficult conversations”, and subject to a litany of other judgments that may jeopardize their hard work and careers.  One of my clients reported that her sleeping, eating, and general wellness was compromised for weeks as she watched a consultant, selected by her organization’s President, force individual team members to publically, and in the most direct manner possible, tell others what they did not appreciate in them.

Needless to say this exercise in “courageous conversations” backfired, and my client felt resentment and an unsafe environment for weeks after the workshop.  She felt she had abandoned her soul by sitting back and watching the exercise unfold and not speaking up.  Her intuition, upbringing, and values were demanding that she stop the exercise and point out the destruction she and others were experiencing. However, she felt straight jacketed by her organization’s culture that whispered “you will be seen as too soft and not a team player”. In short, this real tension of bringing out one’s heart and nurturing side is often perceived to be at odds with being able to generate results and perform at a high level.

(2)   Personal vs. Professional Relationships – My clients often report that they feel pressure to relate to their work colleagues in a narrow and “professional” manner. However, it turns out that this prism is a robotic and unfulfilling one.  Organizations are not well-oiled machines as some prefer, but a tapestry shaped by human fabric made up of aspirations, fears, anxieties, courage, and numerous other feelings.  In addition, the multi-cultural and multi-generational workforce of the 21st century brings with it a litany of beliefs, cultures, and mindsets. Given that in the U.S., more than 70% of our waking hours are usually spent at work, it would only make sense that we get to know our work colleagues as “whole people” and not as functionaries of their organizational roles. Connecting to others is a basic human need like food, shelter, and physical safety.  When we are forced to abandon this basic human impulse in favor of artificially classifying, categorizing, and judging others, we feel unfulfilled and react in unnatural and destructive ways that may harm others and ourselves.  Getting to know the whole person also makes business sense.

In a recent survey conducted by Rath, Conchie, and a Gallup research team asking more than 10,000 followers what they need from their leaders, they consistently pointed out four areas:

  • Trust
  • Compassion
  • Stability
  • Hope

Notice that these four needs are realized when the leader is able to connect with her followers at an individual level and when they get to know her as an authentic and real person. It is nearly impossible to trust, feel compassion, and invest our hopes in someone whom we don’t really know or connect with. In short, the tension lies in the desire for leaders to be authentic in cultural environments that often times penalize them for doing so.

(3)   Whole Self vs Work SelfWork is a natural and healthy calling. It validates our evolutionary need for productivity and achievement. It is noble and honorable to create better and safer products and improve our societies. However, extensive research on happiness and wellness confirms that work comprises only one of our basic human needs. Leaders are under increasing pressure to borrow from other parts of their lives and invest more time, focus, and energy into work. Many leaders report symptoms of burnout, depression, sleep deprivation, weight gain, drinking, and other unhealthy outcomes. Extensive research documented in “Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others Through Mindfulness, Hope, and Compassion” by Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee shows that rather than constantly sacrificing themselves to workplace demands, leaders must be resonant–combat stress, avoid burnout, and renew themselves physically, mentally, and emotionally if they are going to be able to successfully lead others. In short, this core leadership dilemma lies in the need for leaders to be more balanced, while operating in organizations that often do not provide them the time to do so.

Questions For On-Line Conversation:

  1. Are you facing any of the above mentioned dilemmas in your leadership?  How are you managing them?
  2. Are there other competing forces that you think leaders are challenged by?


1. Rath T, Conchie B. Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Team, and Why People Follow. New York, NY: Gallup Press. 2008.

2. Boyatzis R. McKee A. Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others Through Mindfulness, Hope, and Compassion. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing. 2005.

The Greatest Leader

I have been thinking about ways to bring together many of the thoughts and ideas that I have posted over the past two years.  The passing of a man that I consider the greatest leader of all time, Nelson Mandela, reminded me that he embodied them all.

Nelson Mandela was the perfect balance of the feminine and masculine energy. In his zeal for independence and hate for apartheid, he exhibited many of the traits typically attributed as masculine: courage, resilience, drive, focus, decisiveness, and results-orientation. In his preference for reconciliation rather than rancor and revenge against the Afrikaners, he decided to build a rainbow coalition, and exercised qualities typically attributed as feminine: expressive, emotions, tenderness, relatedness, love and compassion, imagination, gentleness, creativity, intuition, and harmony. This aspect of his leadership is one of the most important reasons for the peaceful transition of South Africa from the apartheid regime to majority rule.

He was the ultimate reflective leader. Twenty seven years of prison provided him ample time to reflect and learn. In prison he learned the language of the Afrikaner, his culture and mores.  He realized that the journey to reconciliation started with understanding your adversary.  His reflections allowed him to piece together his strategy for the rainbow nation and ways of moving Afrikaners into nation-building.  After his liberation, he continued to take his nightly walks alone to reflect on his day and to capture the learning.

Mandela was the personification of an authentic leader. He made his values and beliefs transparent and his actions supported them.  For example, when it was discovered that Winnie, his lifelong soul mate who stood by him throughout his prison years had misused her power, he stripped her of power and eventually left her.

He was the giver leader. After he stepped down from presidency, he spent most of his time in the service of children with grave illnesses and AIDS. He travelled the world for peace and harmony, and because of his credibility and stature, was able to influence numerous world leaders to better the human condition.

Mandela understood the power of words and the impact of humor.  Those that heard him were moved by his words, which were often spoken with conviction and the wisdom that comes with years of suffering and reflection.  His words resonated with people across the globe because he understood his audiences and took special care to connect with each at their level.  His informal style and humor made him approachable and liked.

We have lost one of the most inspirational and exceptional leaders our planet has known. In dedicating this posting to him, my sincere wish is for my readers to reflect on the actions of this great man. Hopefully, each of you can reach deep inside yourselves to access the leader attributes that are awaiting discovery and to be carried out in the service of those that have entrusted their lives and careers to you.

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.