James Mueller Laughter as Leadership

Laughter as Leadership in Times of Stress

“After all I’ve done for him. How could he say such a thing! ‘Failure of leadership?!?’” !*&?#^%3!”

These are some thoughts going through Jill’s (not her real name) mind as she reads to me from an email sent by the former CEO. Though a seasoned executive, Jill is relatively new in her role as chief executive of a national organization. She retained me as her executive coach to help her get sound footing and establish herself as the organization’s leader.

The former CEO, let’s call him Fred, was having a hard time letting go. They kept him under contract to help with the transition, as the issues this organization addresses are complex.

However, at the end of his contract, Fred continued to engage constituents and direct the staff without consulting or even informing Jill. When she confronted Fred, his response was vitriolic and included a litany of Jill’s shortcomings, including that very provocative, very intentional “failure of leadership” phrase… to give the knife a little twist.

When we spoke, Jill admitted how painful it was to be told she had failed at leadership. And as we discussed the email, she admitted that she recognized that a few of the shortcomings were true. She could admit this because she is one of the most emotionally mature and generous people I know.

She said, “Okay, coach, what do I do? I didn’t respond to him earlier out of just plain exhaustion in dealing with him.”

Jill’s experience evoked a flood of emotion because it reminded me of similar challenges I had experienced as an executive.  The personal assaults are always painful—especially when sprinkled with bits of truth.  But how to respond?  Should she call Fred up and “put him in his place?”  Should she ask the board to intervene?  Should she have the lawyer send him a letter outlining the liabilities and risks of a former employee engaging in non-contractual work?  Should she contact the staff and constituents and tell them to stop all contact with Fred?

After a few exchanges and a few moments of reflection, I said, “Laugh first, then decide what to do.”

Huh?!?  What kind of advice is that?  Laugh? That is so simplistic. What the hell kind of consultant are you?

Laughter opens us up to see the absurdity of our self-importance—and that of others’.  Too often we get too serious—as if these inconveniences and offenses really mean anything in the larger arc of life.  Have you ever sat in a room with people who take themselves too seriously?  It’s god-awful.

Why laugh?  It strengthens our immune system, boosts our mood, diminishes our pain, and protects us from the harmful effects of stress. It lightens our burdens, opens our hearts, inspires hope, connects us to others, and keeps us grounded, focused, and alert. There are organizations around the world devoted solely to laughter.

I remember once when Jim Lehrer, the News Hour anchor, looked at the camera and said: “Three guys walked into a bar…  the fourth one ducked.” Deadpan. Straight-faced. That day the news wasn’t so bad…  mostly because I kept chuckling.

Have you ever noticed that, once you laugh, how much more easily you release anger and forgive?

Getting back to my story. As I said, I was confident Jill knew what to do once she could laugh. I wanted her to discover that.  The result was that it cleared the anger from her emotions and the fog from her mind that had been elicited by accusations.  She could now see that the email was mostly sour grapes sprinkled with little truths and constructed to make her feel bad.

From a psychoanalytic perspective, Fred wanted Jill to experience his pain. Not terribly mature, but a fully human response.  Laughter allowed Jill to open her mind to see beyond the barbs, to see the pain Fred was experiencing, and to respond to that, which was the core issue.  Though Jill didn’t tell me exactly what she wrote, her next communique was, “I followed your advice to send a short but thoughtful message to Fred.” It’s funny that she heard my advice in that way—I don’t recall telling her to write a short, thoughtful note. Instead, laughter enabled her to see, free from emotional entanglement, the wisdom of sending that note and what to say.

I have always recommended that board meetings begin with a mission moment, and now I recommend a moment of laughter.  Meetings should be infused with laughter. If you’ve ever been in one of my workshops, I use it constantly. Humor breaks down barriers. It makes us accessible to others… you might say it makes us appear…  appear as human, fallible, kind, and as such, approachable.

When used effectively, laughter allows us to tackle difficult issues without taking offense because we stop personalizing others’ comments, we gain objectivity; we can be more receptive, more generous. And it opens our minds to creativity.

In these strange times as we deal with this virus pandemic, it’s important to bring laughter into our lives and relationships.  Try it. It feels great.

AUTHOR - James Mueller

Jim Mueller is president of James Mueller & Associates LLC (JMA), a national consulting firm that provides services in the areas of organizational development, governance, and philanthropy. Follow Jim on LinkedIn.