February 2024 Leader Letter

Exercise Your Funny Bone

Get quick ideas on dabbling in humor, now recognized as an essential leadership skill.

By Renée Covino

People sitting and laughing

When is the last time you strived to be in the moment—as a leader? In team meetings, are you typically focused on past results and future ideas? Those are necessary exercises, but so is giving your brain—and the brains of your team—a little break.

Being present through humor can do that because when you're laughing, you aren't worried about the past or the future; you are in a comedic pause feeling refreshed. And that fosters human connection and closeness, leaving people more open to learn and produce. Research from Wharton, MIT, London Business School, and other learning institutions identifies a good sense of humor as an essential leadership skill bringing with it a host of business benefits; for a leader, humor is a golden attribute.

Don't worry, you don't have to practice stand-up comedy to earn it. In fact, the more authentic and natural you are with humor, the better. Consider these quick ideas from laughter/leadership experts:

  • When the moment lends itself, laugh at yourself in front of the team. Light self-deprecating humor is good. This signals that you are human, that you are competent but with relatable flaws.
  • If you're not good at “ha-ha” funny, try “aha” funny. Cleverness is a second cousin to comedy and can often have the same effect on the team, say the experts.
  • You could also try one of the following: present a paradox, give an anecdote, or state an odd fact or outlandish detail; then, pause for effect. Remember, you don't have to get deep belly laughs to amuse and delight.
  • Disarm the “elephant in the room” by (appropriately) poking fun at what the team is worried about. This can be effective even when you don't know the answer yet (and make that part of your humor).
  • Get started and practice where humor comes most naturally to you. Do not let past misjudgments inhibit you from trying better the next time. Over time, your humor skills will improve (just like public speaking improves with practice). Those you lead want you to succeed with this; it ultimately will help all of you relax more and relieve stress.
  • When all else fails, get humorous help. Ask someone on the team to start the meeting with a G-rated joke or funny story. This will show you appreciate how humor can lead to success.

Additonal Resources

Toastmaster: Leading With a Laugh

Toastmaster: Improv-ing Club Meeting

Toastmaster: Fire Up the Lecturn!

Forbes: Lead With Laughter: How Humor Can Positively Transform A Work Environment

Harvard Business Review: Leading with Humor