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Humor in Leadership

Jim Mahoney Teaching

"If you can’t laugh at yourself, you leave the job to others."

As school superintendent, I was with our middle school principal when we interviewed a candidate for assistant principal for the school that served nearly 800 students. Even though it’s been decades ago, I still remember the principal’s question and the candidate’s answer. The candidate and I were sitting across the desk from the principal when he asked, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” The candidate didn’t hesitate with his reply, “get up and I’ll show you.” We all burst out laughing at this quick and witty answer displaying both a sense of humor and authenticity that proved to be prescient of his leadership as he subsequently was selected for the job.

Stanford professors Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas in a recent book, HUMOR, Seriously, argue from their recent research that often the best way to connect with people on an emotional level is with humor. They found ample evidence for the adage that we don’t need to take ourselves so seriously to grapple with serious things. I mean it was former President Reagan who, after an attempted assassination on his life, as he was rolled into surgery said to the attending surgeons, “Please tell me you’re Republicans.” Lighten up. That’s what our assistant principal did in our interview. More importantly, he showed who he was to us in this answer as well as in our conversation. Researcher Wayne Decker found managers with a sense of humor— not necessarily funny themselves -  are rated by employees as more pleasant to work with and are more respected.

That’s not to say that comedy must be added to the leadership curriculum for would be leaders. Funny is pretty subjective and it’s not coded in our DNA. People aren’t born funny or not. Consider Arizona’s women’s basketball coach whose team upset perennial power UConn in the national semifinals this year. In an intimate huddle after the game, the coach gathered her players, held up her middle finger and added a profane comment consistent with that gesture about people in general who had not given their team a chance to win the game. The coach didn’t know the moment was being filmed and would go viral. I can promise you there were people who found the moment awkward, and others who found it funny.

This isn’t to debate whether the moment was comedic; that’s in the eye of the beholder. It’s what the coach did next when asked to apologize to all who watched it on video. She said no, that was a private moment and was consistent with who she is as a person. I retell it here because her authenticity was on display. Her relatability. It’s why her girls cheered and laughed when she gestured and spoke in the huddle. She was relatable to the kids. It’s why so many folks find Seinfeld episodes funny.

Aaker and Bagdonas offer this not so funny leadership tidbit. According to a 2019 HBR survey, 58% of employees trust a complete stranger more than their boss. Get your head around that. Research and stories are rife with people who leave bad bosses. Maybe we need leaders who are a little more human, relatable, and approachable. Those who perhaps are a little less brilliant and serious. And yes, can laugh with us.