Should a leader have a sense of humor?

If laughter is characteristic of man, the sense of humor is not so well shared among many leaders. In its public or symbolic manifestations, it does not mix well with power. Humor has long been condemned by Christianity, since the Gospels do not relate episodes in which Jesus laughs. This is at least the argument of the ultra-rigorous monk Jorge de Burgos, in the novel by Umberto Eco, The name of the rose.

In the classic theories of leadership, increasingly contested today, humor is not part of the so-called qualities necessary for leadership, such as tenacity, exemplarity or the ability to influence and motivate. Humor would seem to oppose the authority that leaders must embody. To lead, one would have to be serious, so many decisions have serious consequences.

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In politics, it seems that the more authoritarian the regimes, the more humor is banished. Dictators like Mussolini, Pinochet, Stalin, Hitler or Pol Pot were no jokes (and it is of course an understatement to say so). In the news, some powerful leaders put on stern faces and almost never use humor in their leadership style. Authoritarian presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Vladimir Poutine in Russia, Xi Jinping in China or Ali Khamenei in Iran do not handle puns or puns very much.

In democracies or at the top of large corporations, “little jokes” are rather frowned upon and can discredit the leader’s skills and tarnish his image. President François Hollande seems in particular to have paid the price during his five-year term.

Humor or irony?

Leadership is the ability to influence others to achieve a goal and effect change, knowing that followers are more or less free to follow the leader. We will qualify as “ethical” the leader who does no harm to others and to his environment.

Humor is a form of communication that intentionally seeks to provoke laughter or smiles. On one side, there is a supposedly humorous message. On the other side, there is the response of those who receive this stimulus. Humor can also be considered a state of mind that often involves self-questioning and self-mockery. This is perhaps why authoritarian leaders or small bosses who will never become great hate him: humor calls into question the comedian himself.

Irony is more a way of mocking, making fun of someone or something. In current discourse, it is used by some to castigate targeted categories. The intention is mocking, malicious, sometimes cruel. The etymology of the word refers us to “concealment”. The irony gives the impression of joking, but it is only a superficial joke: behind the smile hides the reproach and the bite.

In the mouth of an authoritarian or negative leader, irony becomes a weapon to annihilate motivation and pleasure at work. The sarcasm of the political or economic leader often goes hand in hand with narcissism or arrogance. US President Donald Trump has used it many times.

Irony is laughing at others or against others, and it is one of the weapons of toxic leaders. Humor is laughing with others. And as demonstrated by numerous academic studies on the subject, it can become an asset of the democratic, positive and ethical leader, who does not deny his responsibilities and who knows how to show empathy.

A good lever for change

According to Céline Bottega, a teacher in accounting and management in Marseille, humor is likely to collectively reinforce behavior. First of all, it would be a good management and leadership tool. It promotes social relationships, makes professional situations less negative and reduces stress, for example. It generates psychological benefits: well-being and pleasure at work, helps to avoid anger and frustration, two emotions that destroy social relationships. Finally, it restores energy.

Humor is also a good way to communicate. It makes it possible to question prejudices and put opinions into perspective. It highlights contradictions and erroneous beliefs. It is a good tool of persuasion. Interpersonal relations, in tough negotiations for example, are modified because humor establishes a pleasant relational climate. It generates positive emotions: joy, surprise, cheerfulness.

Finally, humor is a good lever for change. A transformation process will perhaps be better accepted and better experienced if the leader knows how to communicate about this process with humor, before, during and after its implementation. The use of humor by leaders nevertheless assumes that leaders master the laws of communication.

In the communication of politicians, it eases tensions, attracts the attention of the public and promotes the memorization of messages. General de Gaulle, for example, knew how to handle words and respond in 1965 to a journalist hearing from him: “I’m not bad. But, don’t worry, one day I will not fail to die…”

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, like American President Barack Obama, knew how to use the right words with talent in their speeches. Humor reminds leaders not to take themselves too seriously, even when dealing with serious matters. It represents an asset in confronting and solving painful problems.

Yes, the authentic leader must know how to use humor. He must not hesitate to make fun of himself, his faults and his weaknesses. Because humor is a relevant sign of good mental health and an invaluable advantage in professional life and life in general.

In a good mood, always!

Be careful though, if humor is a powerful lever for influencing behavior, it must remain ethical, so that the leadership tool does not turn into a support for manipulation. It is more difficult to laugh at a war or a migrant boat. Humor must be practiced wisely, at the right time and in the right situation. Otherwise, it can degrade human relations and damage the credibility of the leader. A CEO would be frowned upon if he struggled when he announced a redundancy plan, as would a minister announcing the postponement of the retirement age.

In the absence of humour, the leader then “a duty of good humor”. No need for the leader to be a comedian. How can he cultivate this good mood? It is enough for him to appreciate and encourage the humor of others. We could therefore give the following advice to current leaders: always stay in a good mood, if you don’t have a sense of humor yourselves. If you have any, practice it wisely to play down situations, reinforce positive behavior and promote social relationships.

If you lack humor, surround yourself with employees who have it or who are in a good mood. Encourage laughter and good humor and laugh at other people’s jokes. Banish, on the other hand, cynicism, irony and mockery. Start new projects in fun mode. During seminars, get employees to play together.

A world without humor would be inhuman. An exercise of power without humor would be just as much.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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