Leading with Humor

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“A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.” – President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Although Eisenhower may not be thought of by everyone for his humor, President Lincoln was well known for his. For instance, he once said, “If I were two faced, would I be wearing this one?”

This shows not only his wit but his ability to be self-effacing which is one of the traits people point to when they discuss what made him such a great leader.

Humor can build common ground, disarm an awkward situation, show empathy, make people feel at ease and decrease stress.

It can be a valuable tool for a leader, but it can also be fraught with pitfalls.

Here are a few suggestions for leadership humor in the workplace.

Be authentic

Humor should be organic. None of the reasons for using humor will work if you’re being disingenuous. You can’t connect with people if you’re not being yourself.

Understand you audience

Science jokes might be hilarious to you, but unless you’re telling it to a group of people with science backgrounds, it’ll speed past them faster than an atom in the Hadron Collider. (See what I mean?)

Self-effacing is effective/Self-deprecating is not

Lincoln’s jab at his appearance is a good example of being self-effacing without being self-deprecating. Making light of a mistake you made or a fault you have with a quick quip can make for a good work environment. However, your staff can’t respect you if you don’t respect yourself. Be careful that self effacement doesn’t become self-deprecation.

Be aware of boundaries

Boundaries are extremely important. At the least, you could hurt someone’s feelings. At worst, you and the company could be sued. If you can’t figure out on your own what’s appropriate, you might consider some Emotional Intelligence training.

Use positive instead of negative humor

Although making a joke at your own expense is one thing, it’s a different ball game when you poke fun at someone else especially someone you supervise. Always keep things positive and inclusive.

“But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.” – Carl Sagan


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