Leadership and Laughter

February 2023

Do you want to be an unf*cker?

As I’ve mentioned before in the Leadership Library, at some point during the pandemic I came across Erica Schreiber’s light-hearted blog post, “When F*cked Is Funny.”  It’s about how she uses humor to shift her consciousness from “below the line” to “above the line” when she feels stuck, including playing a particular song.  As soon as I listened to it I knew I’d found my personal Covid-19 Anthem: Katie Goodman’s perfectly-pitched “I Didn’t F*ck It Up.”  (Take a moment to check it out – stand up and sing along!)  There’s so much to love about these psychologically perceptive lyrics, but perhaps because of my profession I especially appreciate that one of the notes it ends on is a delicious coaching question I ask myself – with genuine curiosity, depending on the situation (!) – on a regular basis: Do you want to be an unf*cker?

Those three little letters

Y. E. S. 

As Keith Johnstone, the author of a classic workbook on improv called Impro (Routledge, 1992), is credited with observing, “There are people who prefer to say ‘yes’ and there are people who prefer to say ‘no’. Those who say ‘yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have. Those who say ‘no’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.”  This is the basis for the well-known “yes, and” improv game, and it applies to leadership as well.  Not in a “yes-to-any-and-everything” sense, but in the sense of having courage to be present with a clear-eyed seeing of the truth of What Is at any given moment, and responding to it in full-bodied good faith.  This kind of presence can offer a largeness of perspective that helps us to find humor in even very difficult realities, and thus bring more creative vision to them.

Of course it is not only for the sake of adventure that leaders are well-served by adopting a “yes, and” to spontaneity and (appropriate) humor, but also because demonstrating relatability is effective at promoting trust.  According to Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, the authors of Humor, Seriously (Penguin, 2020), over the past couple of decades there has been an unsurprising trust-in-leadership crisis.  Their research shows that in workplace contexts low trust measurably erodes motivation and productivity, whereas high trust in leaders is correlated with innovation and performance, because it creates the conditions for safer risk-taking.  The chapter on “Leading with Humor” reads to me like an argument for leaders to nurture trust by discovering their signature style (or Transformational Third Way) of transcending the poles of Gravity and Levity; a magic mix of what’s bigger than the either/or of these poles opens up creativity, including in high-heat, high-stakes conflict.  (The authors cite late Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as a towering example of using humor to loosen up the atmosphere in tense negotiations.  I agree with them and can recommend Albright’s final memoir, Hell and Other Destinations – Harper, 2020 – as proof!)  On page 26, Aaker and Bagdonas write that even Dwight D. Eisenhower espoused humor as important to the art of leadership, and he was “the second-least naturally funny president after Franklin Pierce.”  

Laughter as lube

In Unleash Your Complexity Genius: Growing Your Inner Capacity to Lead (Stanford, 2023), Jennifer Garvey Berger and Carolyn Coughlin name laughter as one of their GEMs or “genius engagement moves” because it is “a miraculous nervous system reset….Not only does it awaken your parasympathetic, complexity-friendly nervous system, but it lubricates basically everything you want for thinking and acting in complexity” (p. 89).  The young-adult fiction writer Jason Reynolds, whom Krista Tippett interviewed for “On Being” about racism, narrative and imagination, shared that he once asked himself what a synonym for freedom could be:

And I made up the word breathlaughter, because there’s something about the idea, for me, that — when I think of breath, I think of life, but I also think of, it doesn’t stop. So if you exhale, what comes out of your mouth spreads and spreads and spreads. It goes and goes and goes and goes. And that’s something to think about. It’s something to think about, what happens when we breathe out or breathe in. It’s also interesting to think about that we’re breathing in, and then breathing out, which means it’s a constant recycling of energy.

Not only is it appropriate to enjoy humor as a leader, but used well, laughter is an extremely powerful shortcut to inviting a liberating shift in consciousness – “a constant recycling of energy” – which you can then steer towards actualizing what matters most.

Questions to consider:

  • How do you shift your consciousness when you feel stuck, or outright f*cked?
  • Do you want to be an unf*cker?  (It’s OK to say no.)  What would it mean to you to be an unfucker in a situation you’re dealing with right now?  What’s the first step?
  • Does the word “breathlaughter” speak to you as a synonym for freedom?  If you were to make up your own synonym for freedom, what would it be?
  • Can you think of a recent example of when laughter was lube for you when responding to a complex issue at work?  What difference did the humor make?  How could you replicate that experience more often?

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