Diverting Leadership Style with Humor

by Dr. Joseph Michelli

According to the Chief of Naval Operations the following radio conversation occurred October 10th 1995:

#1 – Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North

#2 – Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.

#1 – This is the Captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert

#2 – No, I say again, you divert YOUR course.

#1 – THIS IS THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER ENTERPRISE. WE ARE A LARGE WARSHIP OF THE US NAVY. DIVERT YOUR COURSE NOW!

#2: This the Puget Sound lighthouse. It's your call.

Most of us in corporate life have had the misfortune to be led by people like the ship's captain. In essence, leaders who are clear as to their purpose and authority but in a fog when it comes to vision and the ability to take their jobs seriously while taking themselves lightly.

Fortunately, many employees have had the benefit of managers who maintain a humorous calm and playful poise in the height of disaster. Imagine for example that you were the co-pilot of the ill fated airline flight which crashed in a cornfield in Sioux City, Iowa in 1989. Had you been seated next to Captain Alfred Haynes you would have experienced his conversation with flight control which went like this:

Bachman: If you cannot make the airport, sir there is an interstate that runs… to the east side of the airport.

Haynes: We're just passing it right now. We're going to try for the airport.

Bachman: You're cleared to land on the runway.

Haynes (laughing): Roger, You want to be particular and make it a runway, huh?

Although 111 people died in this terrible accident, approximately 185 survived a landing which experts viewed as miraculous. Both Captain Haynes and the flight control operator credited their ability to maintain their humor skills as a substantial component in the landing. Although most days on the job do not have the level of crisis encountered by Captain Haynes there are continual threats which undermine our sense of control and empowerment at work.

Leaders who demonstrate humor skills teach by example the importance of playful attitude and positive perspective. They soften adversity in a manner which reduces tension. Abraham Lincoln, a man whose leadership style was marked by a quick and dry wit, exemplified his uncanny ability to roll with conflict when Frederick Douglass accused him in a public debate of being “two-faced”. Mr. Lincoln responded in a soft tone and unassuming style, “Ladies and gentleman – I leave it you, If I had two faces do you really think I would show with this one!”

Leaders who draw the joke onto themselves or use other humor strategies for gaining perspective in difficult times assure those who follow them a safe and hopeful environment. By using comedic vehicles like “Good News/Bad News” leaders can help their workplace extract victories from the jaws of defeat and infuse life into a listless workforce. When comedian's use the Good News/Bad News approach they remark to the audience, often with a Groucho Marx's like voice, “I've got some good news and I've got some bad news, which would you like to hear first?” No matter what the audience chooses the comedian has a ready and unexpected punch line. In corporate life, we often don't get to choose between good and bad news and we would foolish to choose bad news at any turn. But when 'bad' things happen, e.g. downsizing, restructuring, we have a choice as to whether we are going to be preoccupied by the bad or seek out the good. Managers who can help their employees express their reaction to the bad and gently steer their colleagues into a perspective on the good are critical assets to an organization.

I faced the challenge of managing the bad news of having my suitcase pop open on a baggage carousel during a business trip. Knowing that clothing critical to a presentation was being shredded by the conveyor belt, I scrambled to locate a sliver of good news. After some consternation, I realized that this was the only time my bag had come out first. Okay, it wasn't a lot of good news but it was enough to place a smile on a my face where a frown had previously been. It also enabled me to resume problem-solving and discontinue my catastrophysing thought processes.

Employee satisfaction surveys confirm what humorologists like myself have known for years – Work groups that play together – stay together. May those you lead and those who lead you facilitate a mirthful experience throughout your workplace.

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Copyright 2005 by Dr. Joseph Mitchelli. Reprinted with permission. Joseph is a professional (and funny) motivational speaker based in Colorado. You can reach Joseph at www.HumorProfits.com