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May 18, 2021 Tuesday 12:10:14 PM IST

Leading with Humour

Leadership Instincts

Why do the top leaders count humour in their leadership skills?  Why is it that the remarkable leaders naturally also have a sense of humour? Noted Stanford academicians Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas teach a course about humour in business. The average age of the students who opt for the course is 23 which is surprisingly the same age at which individuals’evaluation of how funny they are sails off a cliff, according to a research done by Gallup. Coincidentally, it’s also around the time people start laughing less.Leaders with humour can build resilient cultures, encourage creativity, and even negotiate better deals. Research has shown that organizations with cultures that integrate humour are more resilient. Some ways in which humour helps in leading from the front is given below.

Humanizing Tool

Leaders employ humour as part of their leadership skills to humanize themselves in the eyes of others. In psychology, there is a term called ‘The Pratfall Effect’ that states that we distance ourselves from individuals who appear to be perfect. We are considerably more fascinatedby competent people who appear to have a trivial, relatable flaw. A leader who cracks jokes on himself is one who exhibits a kind of vulnerability that inspires followers to see the real person behind the title. It positions the leader if not precisely one of us, then one close to us. One leader who was adept in making fun at himself was Winston Churchill. Being a gifted comedian, he once said: “In the course of my life, I have often had to eat my words, and I must confess that I have always found it a wholesome diet. In similar vein, Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett once said, "I buy expensive suits. They just look cheap on me."

Emotional Intelligence

Getting individuals to relax is a comedian or therapist's job, but with the pandemic upon us, leaders need to be cautious about the emotional needs of their workforce. Working in isolation can be mentally, physically and emotionally demanding. It's up to a leader to keep his employees engrossed but also engaged. Humour can lighten the situation in ways that enable individuals, if only for a moment, to forget the crisis. Connor Diemand-Yauman - Co-founder and Co-CEO - Merit America. His first all-hands Zoom call with his employees was organised amid a tough time for the world, and a notably divisive time in the US. He wanted to nod to the adversity of the moment while signalling care and assurance. To demostrate this fact, he mocked to leave his screen sharing on, and as every employee was watching the video with bated breaths, he googled “things inspiring CEOs say in tough times.” Everyone lost it.

A unique way to disarm

Humour lightens the mood, puts individuals at ease and cuts down on the terrorization factor that authoritative leaders face with all stakeholders. It is a simply way of demonstrating that you don't take yourself too seriously which can be considered as an indicator of humility.For instance, Arnold Schwarzenegger who was the former California Governor was once hit by an egg thrown by an angry protester in a rally. He replied wittily and said “this guy owes me bacon now,” which eased tension and even gained support from the protesters. Business persons, since they start from scratch, are naturally inclined towards developing leadership styles imbued with humour and cultures that know how to laugh. But in the ordeal of establishing the company, negative emotions may smother the giggles. To make both the start-up experience itself and later stories about the experience more entertaining, founders should try ‘reframing’ it from a tragic story to one that is more light-hearted.  The tale of losing your only customer becomes less grim if you can also narrate the night you spend consoling yourself by binging on RuPaul's Drag Race.

To make things memorable

The humour effect is a cognitive bias that facilitate individuals to recall information better when they identify it as humourous. For instance, when students are taught a new concept in a humourous way, such as through a funny story, they’re usually are more likely to recall that concept, compared to if it was put across in a serious fashion.A survey done by Pew Research proves that that individuals who watch humourous news shows such as The Daily Show demonstrated higher retention of news facts than those who got their news from newspapers. Leaders employ humour in their leadership skills to be unforgettable and not tuned out. A sense of humour has been identified as one of the most significant aspect in workforce forming impressions of their supervisors. Leaders who use humour stays in the memory for longer because individuals are more likely to recollectprior events that are linked with them laughing.

Even though remarkable leaders often use humour to inspire their followers for enhancing productivity, they should be cautious about their style of humour in various circumstances. They also need to be conscious of their position as role models because their actions would be considered as social cues for their supporters. Humour continues to be a significant instrument for effective leadership even amidst certain pitfalls. To conclude, as Dwight Eisenhower once stated: “Humour sense is an important component of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.” If the second-least naturally funny president after Franklin Pierce, thought humour was essential to win wars, construct highways, and caution against the military-industrial complex, then you might want to learn to use it too.


Dr. Manu Melwin Joy

The writer is an Assistant Professor at School of Management Studies, CUSAT

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