Last week I asked you to read a selection from my book The Character and Greatness of Winston Churchill. It was a piece about humor and the purposes it can serve in a leader’s arsenal. I want to add some thoughts to that piece and make application more directly to your life as a leader.
Some leaders are naturally funny. Most are not. It doesn’t matter. We can all learn how to round out our humor, as I’ll explain in a minute. The most important matter is to understand the purposes of humor.
It is easy to get the impression from watching popular comedians that the goal of humor is a room full of belly-laughing people. It isn’t true. What comedians do is entertainment. If you can entertain with humor from time to time, that’s fine. Enjoy it. However, entertainment-type humor usually just gets in the way of what a leader is meant to be about. The best use of humor for a leader is to win the audience, position yourself, and make a broader point.
Every audience has to be won. Even a college professor who sees the same students each week has to win his students each time in order to impact them. Humor can help with this.
I had a professor in college who was about as dry as a man can be. He knew it. It was simply his personality. Yet he loved his students and wanted to impact them. He knew that they scurried into his class stressed out and tired. He had to change the mood.
So he decided to start each class session with a joke he had memorized. Now, the jokes were always terrible, but that was the point. An unfunny man was telling a goofy joke. It was hilarious to the students in a kind and endearing way. It helped that the professor always laughed uncontrollably at his own joke. The whole class laughed with him. And they grew to love him. And he became one of the most popular teachers at that university. Why? Because he made an effort—however clumsily—to win his audience.
The second reason for humor is to position yourself. You want people to know you have a sense of humor, that you don’t take yourself too seriously, and that you are here to be interesting. Self-deprecating humor can really help with this. For example, I have a tendency to talk fast. I can’t really help it. If I’m excited about a topic, I talk at 90 mph. So, I joke about it. I often tell my audiences right up front that I’m sorry but I talk fast, “like a Yankee on drugs.” This gets them laughing, tells them I don’t take my self too seriously and even shows a bit of irreverence. Having positioned myself, I can get to the point.
Finally, you want to use humor to make a broader point. Ronald Reagan said the scariest ten words in the English language are, “Hi, I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Churchill said that “a fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.” University of Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer said, “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.”
Get the point? People laugh. They like the speaker. They remember the point of the humor long after. This is the art of leadership humor.
Don’t seek to be funny. Seek to use gentle laughs to win your audience, position yourself, and make a broader point. If it doesn’t come naturally, script it like my old professor did. And Churchill. And Lincoln. And nearly every great leader in history.
That’s it. Have a good week. And don’t worry. Notre Dame shall rise again!