25th Nov 2011

But Seriously, Folks...

If one considers that for some hundred thousand years man was an animal susceptible to fright in the highest degree, and that anything sudden or unexpected meant that he was ready to do battle, perhaps to die…then one cannot be surprised that at every sudden, unexpected word or deed, if it comes without danger or harm, man is released and experiences instead the opposite of fright. The cringing creature, trembling in fear, springs up, expands wide: man laughs.                             Friedrich Nietszche


We’ve all felt relief when a well-timed joke defused a difficult situation. Leadership means facing one difficult situation after another, and any good leader can use the transformative power of laughter in several ways. Humour can reassure people or cut them down to size. It can charm or inspire, goad or deflect. Above all, humour at its best comes across as a burst of vitality.

But the management of morale, like all social skills, is a delicate business, and humour has got to be selective if it wants to hit home. The best example of how not to use humour in leadership is David Brent from The Office. His attention-grabbing antics and mean-spirited sniggering make him a toxic clown, erasing his credibility and demeaning everyone around him.

Better to think of the fabled Hollywood Hero. In a moment of crisis, when it all looks hopeless and the world is against him, the Hollywood Hero always cracks a joke – from Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca to Bruce Willis in Die Hard. And there’s a very good reason for that.

Another random example shows why: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In the finale of the movie, the heroes are mortally wounded, facing their final showdown, outgunned and outnumbered. What do they talk about during their last few moments alive? They don’t reminisce over their past glories, still less do they think of commiserating over their present predicament. They exchange an absurd piece of banter about taking off for Australia and learning to swim – and then without another word they stoically go out to meet their fate. Why? Because the audience loves them for it.

Humour is connected to leadership in the same way that it’s connected to heroism. If it’s done in the right way at the right time, it embodies fearlessness, hope and courage, and it has at least the potential to inspire the same feelings in others.

Hilda Goold

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