Three Books with a Sense of Humor for Serious Leaders

A sense of humor for serious leaders

The closest to perfection a person ever comes is when he fills out a job application form, says Canadian businessman and politician Stanley J. Randall. That should give anyone pause, it's both funny and true. It's funny because it's true.

Being funny at work is a difficult proposition. Yet, A company is known by the people it keeps, said Will Rogers. He was an American stage and film actor, and for that reason knew a thing or two about performance.

In all seriousness, play is serious business. Johan Roos and Bart Victor created the Serious Play concept and process while they were both professors at IMD in Switzerland in the mid-1990s. 

Roos and Victor conducted some experiments with leadership teams in Tetra Pak, Hydro Aluminium and TFL and during an IMD program for the top 300 leaders in the Lego Group.

LEGO® Serious Play® became a product line after involving several teams and more than 20 iterations. Consultants use the concept developed as a way to help managers describe, create and challenge their views on the business and build innovation#.

Serious leaders get humor

If you see a bandwagon, it's too late, says French-British financier, tycoon and politician James Goldsmith. Leaders have been hip to using humor in business to their advantage for centuries.

But the benefits of humor still make it important to understand its role of persuasion in modern business:

  • You can use humor to diffuse conflict. Providing it's well-timed, a quip in the middle of a heated argument can relieve tension.
  • Laughter is a welcome release. It can improve the immune system, blood pressure and blood flow.
  • You know you've done well when people laugh as much or nearly as much during the work week than the weekend. If not, engagement is poor.
  • Who can't wait to be in a fun work environment? It can reduce burnout and turnover.
  • People say humor is a desired trait in leaders.

Aristotle wrote about the art of persuasion. In Rhetoric, he suggests that a good joke relies on creating an expectation and then violating it. Humor comes down to expectation violation.

Delivering the unexpected

In 1985, Victor Raskin, a professor of linguistics outlined the “script-based semantic theory of humor.” This means there is a series of actions you expect. For example, when you go to a restaurant, you sit down, order food, eat, pay and leave.

In linguistics, we talk about how certain words elicit the expectation of actions following each other. A joke is made of two parts: 1./ the setup; and 2./ the punchline. Ruskoff noted that it works when the conclusion turns the script on its head.

Here's what Jerry Seinfeld did to the restaurant script:

“Went out to dinner the other night. Check came at the end of the meal, as it always does. Never liked the check at the end of the meal system, because money’s a very different thing before and after you eat.

Before you eat money has no value. And you don’t care about money when you’re hungry, you sit down at a restaurant. You’re like the ruler of an empire. 'More drinks, appetizers, quickly, quickly! It will be the greatest meal of our lives.'

Then after the meal, you know, you’ve got the pants open, you’ve got the napkins destroyed, cigarette butt in the mashed potatoes – then the check comes at that moment. People are always upset, you know. They’re mystified by the check. 'What is this? How could this be?' They start passing it around the table, 'Does this look right to you? We’re not hungry now. Why are we buying all this food?!'”

He reframed it.

Comedians have the most insight into human nature and human behavior. They work to understand what would make people laugh. Often, that means figuring out what people's expectations are, then violating them.

To do that, they need to have a deep understanding about the way people see the world. Culture is a big part of it. What works in Italy, won't work in Texas, and vice versa.

Three books with a sense of humor

There's probably never been a better time to brush up on worldviews and find what resonates with your customers, prospects and employees. The most persuasive leaders are seemingly naturals at this.

Marketers' entire job is to test hypotheses about the way people see the world—whether it’s the perspective of a single person, or the tendencies of groups. To do that, we run experiments. It's a similar process to that of comedians.

Three books that will help you think funny:


The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s: An Oral History by Andy Greene

It's what it says it is: an oral history of the show. If you've not watched The Office yet, now's a good time to do so.

Value: You'll see what the writers were thinking on the characters and story lines and appreciate how much effort everyone put in the show.


Naked Jape : Uncovering the Hidden World of Jokes by Jimmy Carr

Is a history of humor and its cross-cultural uses. You can observe comedy from a few angles: psychology, philosophy and evolution. It includes many scientific references to published books and papers from renowned people in their respective fields, jokes and one-liners.

Value: learning how comedy works.


Shtick to Business: What the Masters of Comedy Can Teach You about Breaking Rules, Being Fearless, and Building a Serious Career by Peter McGraw

Dr. Peter McGraw is a behavioral economist, professional speaker, and expert on the scientific study of humor. He teaches marketing and psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Value: investigates the interplay of emotions, judgment and choice and how you can overcome your limitations. “I don’t want you to be funny. I want you to think funny,” says McGraw.

And resist stress.

Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel

Leaders often need to communicate difficult decisions. They navigate the edge between what's necessary to say and what could be uncomfortable to hear. Reframing helps them recast one thing into another.

There are many ways to say the same thing. Only one appropriate to who you are and what you want to convey.

Due to budget cutbacks, the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off.
—Robert Townsend, actor, director, comedian, and writer 

Sometimes that light at the end of the tunnel is a train.
—Charles Barkley, former professional basketball player who is an analyst on Inside the NBA 

Seems like the light at the end of the tunnel may be you.
—Steven Tyler,  singer, songwriter, musician, actor, and former television personality

Leaders (and marketers) have to validate their hypotheses with people who are out in the world just living their lives. A leader's understanding of people has a dimension of immediacy that the scientist's focused on replicating results over a period of time doesn’t.

Some leaders are able to tap into the universal qualities of what make people tick. Their quotations are timeless because their deeper understanding of what motivates people to work, works.


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