Leading with Humor


There are certain occupations that although considered highly stressful seem to encourage some people to work long past retirement age. We increasingly see politicians continue to hold office into their 70’s and 80’s and some actors and directors seem busier in their senior years than they did decades earlier. Certainly power, wealth, and a sense of mission are obvious motivators.


Mac Brown, an American college football coach, recently decided to leave his comfortable retirement job as a broadcaster to return to coaching. His primary reason – fun. He has repeatedly stated his primary focus for one last run as a coach is to make it fun for the players and himself and to just enjoy the journey. He recognized that he had not always done that and promised himself that he would enjoy it as much as possible this time. Perhaps, it is an insight that comes with much experience and reaching a point in your career where you have greater clarity on what matters most. In his first season back, the team showed significant improvement and are currently continuing the improvement in their second season. Multiple reasons account for the success but one wonders if the focus on fun is near the top.


The results oriented focus of sports, politics, business, and healthcare create a stressful and serious work environment. The attitude, “we are not here to have fun but to win, save lives, make money, or get things done” can feel like a common sentiment. Yet more and more research shows that fun and results are not at opposite ends of the spectrum. Most of us recognize that humor is a key coping mechanism for stress. Physiologically and emotionally, humor counteracts many of the negatives created by prolonged stressful situations. But more than just providing some relief, research shows us that humor drives higher levels of performance. According to a Robert Half survey, 91% of executives believe a sense of humor is important for career advancement and 84% responded that people with a sense of humor perform better.


One of the most common benefits of humor is creating a bond between co-workers. Teams with high expressions of humor truly enjoy being together and develop an internal language including inside jokes. This creates a strong sense of being in the “ingroup.” During times of conflict, the shared language of humor also reduces unnecessary friction allowing solutions to be reached and healthy relationships to endure.


A study by the Bell Leadership Institute reported that a sense of humor ranked as one of the two most desirable traits in leaders. (The other being a strong work ethic.) This quality is especially important when teams and organizations experience those difficult moments when success seems unlikely. Leaders who maintain a sense of humor tend to raise the level of optimism and send the message that everything will be alright.


What constitutes humor can be influenced by many factors like culture, age, and the situation. And we all know people who seem to try a bit too hard to land the joke or try to land it at the wrong time or at someone’s expense. Fortunately, the most important aspect of leading with humor does not require the skills of a stand up comedian. The most important quality is to be in good humor and to recognize the humor, irony, or awkwardness of the moment. It is less about starting your meeting with a generic joke and more about recognizing the stresses everyone is feeling and to find a light-hearted way to put yourself in the middle of that situation. Once the leader has set the tone, the natural comedians will rush in to provide some additional comic relief.


Providing time and space for humor is essential for community building on a team and in an organization. It creates a sense of belonging and empathy through laughing at ourselves and with each other resulting in a higher capacity to handle the serious matters of making hard decisions during difficult times.