One Leadership Secret that is Truly Laughable

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My daughter was not a fan of hiking, growing up. She’d get halfway to the halfway point and start complaining. I would try to motivate her with a question, “How do you climb a mountain?” When she would avoid answering, I would offer an answer, “One step at a time!” It didn’t lessen the whining, and the scenario repeated itself, often. Grown now, I recently shared with her how overwhelmed I felt reviewing my to-do list. With a wry smile, she fed my words back to me, “How do you climb a mountain, Dad? One step at a time!”

Jimmy Carrane, an author at Improv Nerd Blog, shared a top ten list of benefits in practicing improvisational humor. It helps us to be better team players, risk-takers, listeners, more confident and kinder people. But humor offers even more towards our success. In my experience, when stress comes, humor plays a critical role in giving others a benefit of the doubt, keeping us focused on the problem solving and solution-creating, instead of placing blame. When leaders foster laughter, it is a step towards an “aha!” moment; it’s been said that it is a short step from “ha ha!” to “aha!”

Lowri Dowthwaite, in her 2017 World Economic Forum article, reveals several studies that suggest when people experience positive emotions, such as joy, happiness, and fun, the brain’s dopamine production increases. An increased dopamine production makes us feel good, relaxes the brain, and allows more neural connections. This results in more creative and flexible thinking, a boost in our working memory, and better problem-solving abilities. Humor is a form of intelligence, and one that is, to quote Daniel H. Pink, “sophisticated” and “peculiarly human” that is unable to be replicated by computers and that is “increasingly valuable in a high-concept, high-touch world.”

A distinguished professor of leadership and organizational culture, David Collinson believes, “Jokes that people tell at the workplace can reveal as much or perhaps more about the organization, its management, its culture, and its conflicts than answers to carefully administered surveys.” So how do we use humor to strengthen and humanize our leadership? And its effectiveness? It may feel awkward, or uncomfortable, when you first start infusing humor in a professional setting. The good news is that humor is a learned skill, not a gift that you either have or don’t. I think learning humor starts with observing and choosing to take small risks.

I was driving to one of our leadership meetings, when I noticed a series of billboards for Universal Studios amusement park. The last billboard contained a picture of the Incredible Hulk roller coaster with something like “A Scream a Minute.” We were meeting to talk about our next strategic push to elevate our women’s services with new facilities and an improved patient experience to match the physical structures we were building. I divulged, in a serious tone, that we had worked on a “best idea wins” and collaboration team mindset and that I had a revolutionary ad campaign for our obstetrics program, complete with a billboard that read, “Florida Hospital (now Advent Health), delivering your baby… with a scream a minute.” Slow laughter began building, which erupted when someone from the marketing team yelled out, “Keep your day job!”

Leading with imagination is about embracing the power of your people, of unleashing their highest potential. If you want to serve them, treat humor as vital; then learn how to use it. Doing anything new can be daunting; but as my daughter reminded me, when there is a mountain to climb – you can conquer, “one step at a time.”


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