Why humour should be taken seriously in leadership

Written by Chris Lewis Tuesday 20 October 2020
With Coronavirus rates increasing and many regions under social restrictions, is there still room for humour in leadership?

What would you pay for something that instantly reduces stress and puts people at ease and shows off your  judgment, experience and confidence? I bet you’d pay pretty highly, wouldn’t you? Well, here’s how to do it – and it won't cost you a penny:

Use your sense of humour.

Let’s be clear, this is not about laughing at other people. Usually, good leaders start by laughing at themselves. This is called humility. You can see these people at work in meetings; they’re the people who speak last, often the ones encouraging others to speak as well. They know that the leader's job is not to be the smartest person in the room (or on the Zoom call). The leader’s job is to make everyone else feel like they’re the smartest person in the room. They don't need to take the credit for themselves because they are confident in their position.

It’s particularly important for the leader to create an environment where stress is managed and people enjoy their work. Why does that matter? Surely, capitalism’s job is to grind people into a fine powder in the pursuit of profit? If it is, it’s being done wrong. Competence always follows preference.

Let’s expand on that

People get good at what they like doing. If people get good at what they like doing at work, they get paid more and they also want to do more of it. Ask any experienced trainer or coach, they’ll agree that it’s almost impossible to develop someone in a subject they hate. Whether they like a subject is all too often based on who teaches it or their first experience of it. When people are relaxed, enjoying themselves and looking forward to the task, you get highly competent teams.

Go on – admit it. You have a ‘to do’ list don't you? Does it ever get any shorter? You get through the tasks but you add more to the bottom of the list, don't you?

Business leaders also need to have a ‘to be’ list

Relaxed, reassuring, consistent, collaborative, loyal...these are all things you can be. You don't do them. Very few leaders have a ‘to be’ list, partly because they never ever get to the end of it. They can put a tick next to having displayed it today, but then they’ll need to be it again tomorrow. So how do we ever achieve being ‘balanced’?

We’ve all learned to prioritise the things we do. We get marks for being certain that there’s only one right answer and it’s at the back of the book. In leadership though there can be many different answers. The leader's job is not just to predict one. It’s to prepare for all eventualities.

If you work with a team where there is no humour, here are a few ideas:

• Start with changing the mood. Build a platform for humour first by creating goodwill.
• Celebrate small victories.
• Bring in the coffees or cakes.
• Recognise success.
• Mark people’s anniversaries or birthdays.
• Lighten the mood. Whenever the leader grants permission for a non-work related discussion, the team will often supply their own humour.

The opportunity for humour is present in every stressful situation, even if the humour is tongue-in-cheek. The phrase “nothing would give me greater pleasure”, can be said in many ways – when asked to do something difficult, it can raise a smile. In a similar way, on a Friday some leaders make a point of asking “Is it Friday today all day and do we get to go home and not come back for two days?”

You don't have to be the office joker. Just be yourself and remember that not everything that counts, can be counted.

To see how you could incorporate humour into your way of working, check out these management styles and find one that suits your personality.

Chris Lewis is an entrepreneur and author of the bestseller Too Fast to Think. He is a former journalist and founder of the largest creative agency in the world. Founded in 1995, it now encompasses 25 offices and employs 500 staff. He is the co-author of bestselling The Leadership Lab, which was Business Book of the Year 2018.

The Infinite Leader: Balancing the Demands of Modern Business Leadership by Chris Lewis and Pippa Malmgren is published by Kogan Page Inspire in October 2020.

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