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Humor – The Secret of Great Public Leadership

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization. 

By Bob Brescia
May 19, 2017

laughHow’s your funny bone doing lately? Have you been taking your colleagues, employees, yourself and others too seriously for your own good? You might even have forgotten how powerful humor can be as a leader’s tool for making things go a lot better – in a much shorter time. No discussion about humor in leadership is complete without recalling a few of President Ronald Reagan’s great one liners and his effective sense of humor – usually at his own expense.

Here are some of my favorites:

  • I have left orders to be awakened at any time in case of national emergency – even if I’m in a Cabinet meeting.
  • Thomas Jefferson once said, ‘We should never judge a president by his age, only by his works.’ And ever since he told me that, I stopped worrying.
  • I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.

What is humor?

President Dwight D. Eisenhower said: “A sense of humor is a part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done.” We often teach that a leader has not only the opportunity to use humor in everyday situations but an obligation to do so. Humor puts people more at ease, breaks the ice and causes trust-building to occur more rapidly. Humor helps leaders to excel in public speaking as well. Many of us can’t stand a dry speaker or worse yet, a caustic one.

Philosophers tell us that beauty is order – we love symmetrical things, putting things in order. For some reason, when things don’t follow in order, they can be funny. For examples, most jokes have an unexpected sequence – a non sequitur. Consider the following joke that was used in one of the Pink Panther movie series:

Inspector Clouseau walks up to a man who has a small dog with him. Clouseau is interested in the dog, saying, “Oh, your dog is so cute. Does he bite?” The man answers “no”. Clouseau extends his hand to pet the dog and the dog bites him. Clouseau is noticeably disturbed and angrily says, “I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite!” The man responds to him, “That is not my dog!”

The unexpected thread causes the humor – the funniness – to occur and we laugh. Warren Buffet the investor said, “I buy expensive suits – they just look cheap on me.” So in leadership, self-deprecating humor is a great approach to take with people. Humor and humility go hand in hand. Leaders must be self-confident, not egotistic. That’s where humor comes in to save the day.

Ben and Jerry’s ice cream company has its own corporate “graveyard” with tombstones for the flavors that never made it. Here’s the epithet for their flavor called “Makin’ Whoopie Pie”:

Though we sure loved Makin’ Whoopie Pie,
and you loved eatin’ the stuff,
after a while we all had to admit,
it just wasn’t Whoopie enough!

Humor is often a characteristic of elderly people. Many elderly people I meet seem to be naturally happy, have a smile on their face, laugh often, etc. I conclude humor is a sign of maturity.

terryHere at the Shepperd Leadership Institute, we recently hosted a lecture with actor and author Terry Crews. The house was packed that night and Terry was well prepared to talk about humor within the practice of leadership. He’s a great guy who knows how to use humor to succeed in every facet of life. Terry hails from Flint, Michigan and had a six-season NFL pro-football career prior to becoming an actor. At the lecture, he discussed what he saw as the pitfalls everyone should watch out for. He called them the “Three C’s”: cynicism, criticism and competition. He advised leaders to avoid those behaviors and be authentic. For example, creativity is much more important than competition in the workplace and creativity usually involves a lot of humor. Terry set a humorous and welcoming tone for everything that followed that evening. It was a great success.


One of the most powerful tools in the leadership toolkit is humor. Why? Humor can disarm a tense situation almost immediately. Humor can blow right past differences in ideologies, politics and other walls that we put up between people. It can make all the difference in gaining the trust of a new colleague, boss or employee.

I remain convinced the two most desirable traits of a leader are 1) a strong work ethic and 2) a good sense of humor. Humor is essential in getting us through our travails on a daily basis. Leaders know this and make it a point to use humor appropriately whenever they can. You don’t need to be a professional comedian to employ humor – you just need to be yourself – usually the great and humorous person that your family knows at home. Just let that person out at work – don’t shed your wonderful “home” personality when you arrive at work. Let it shine!

Author: Bob Brescia serves as the Executive Director of the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute, Odessa, TX. His latest book is Destination Greatness – Creating a New Americanism. Bob has a doctoral degree with distinction in Executive Leadership from The George Washington University. He also serves as Chairman of the Board at Basin PBS – West Texas public television. Please contact him at [email protected] or Twitter: @Robert_Brescia.


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