Sunday, May 1, 2011

WARNING: Leadership and Humor Might Not Mix Well Together

Originally Posted on June 22, 2010

The following was written as an assignment for my Leadership and Decision Making course at Saint Mary's University of Minnesota that recently finished. This is a reflection on one of the leadership issues brought up in class in terms of "wedges" against the success of a team and its leader. Since I've experienced this first hand on various fronts, I figured I'd share with my professor my interpretation of this issue. 

Now, I share this with you. Enjoy!

Humor – it is a healer sometimes. Or, does it do more harm than good?

I love humor as much as the next person – and that can vary depending on the delivery as well as the reception. As a writer, I utilize humor as much as it is appropriate to the piece I am drafting. I also am influenced by humor – especially when I set my satellite radio to the comedy channels. One particular one always has me in stitches: The Foxxhole. This is the channel that award-winning entertainer Jamie Foxx lent his name to as well as developing the programming and procuring the on-air talent for it’s live shows. You can probably guess the level of humor that is programmed into The Foxxhole – it is not exactly rated PG-13 or close to it.

The question remains as to whether something I heard on The Foxxhole is appropriate to use when being a leader. When is it appropriate – or is it appropriate at all?

The term “appropriate” resounds when it comes to utilizing “joking and kidding” as a way to influence anyone looking towards a leader. In a professional setting, the weight of a joke will most likely set the tone of the relationship between the leader and anyone working with him or her. Considering that humor can be a double-edge sword in a professional setting, one must examine whether humor is a tool worth using or not in a leadership setting.

I have been in situations where the use of humor in leadership positions or as a part of a leadership style was not appropriate for the situation and setting. At the point, I am not discussing the quality of humor – it about the use of it. Sometimes, humor can be seen as shield or a defense mechanism of a weak leader. It is also a sign of defensiveness masking the incompetency of a leader. Behind the humor, regardless of appropriateness or quality, there is an insecurity of a leader lacking the grounding and courage to lead.

Since humor can be seen as a defense mechanism for insecure leaders, how do it manifest in the real world? Badly, I’m afraid. I heard it all – reiterations of jokes heard from an HBO special with slight alterations to comply with Human Resources policy, a joke they heard at the party that did not translate well with the leader, “knock-knock” jokes, stories about a vacation that had a funny twist to it – and, many more manifestations to list here.

Why does humor not work? The matter is in the message humor conveys. Not just the joke itself, but the temper and the meaning behind it. A leader can manipulate a team member who rarely displays any humor with a “wet” joke as a ploy to liven him or her up. In comedy, a “wet” joke usually lacks subtlety and tact. In the world of business or any setting a leader may reside, it is an entrĂ©e for disaster.

Insult jokes are the worst kind a leader should ever use. Not just reprising the humor of Don Rickles or the late Robin Harris, but one where there is some form of meaning behind the message. A leader should never stoop to the lowest of lows in order to joke or kid by using insult humor. Any form of manipulation using such forms of humor will indeed backfire on the leader and will be reflective on the team.

the enterprise. It also points to a skewed vision of where the leader wants to take his team towards the future. The effect of a leader’s sarcasm on the team will indeed lower morale towards a malaise when approaching tasks or creating success for the enterprise.

Is there a way to use humor, jokes or “kidding around” in leadership? The President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, uses it well in a self-effacing way. Obama knows when to use humor to lighten up a crowd during an event that calls for it – not during a press conference on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This goes back to the idea of what is considered appropriate not only in the use of humor, but to the kind of humor being utilized in a particular setting.

The point is simple: Leaders – leave the jokes and the kidding around to the Comedians and the comedy writers!

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