Laughter in Leadership

Laughter is Great Medicine: How Leaders use Laughter it Effectively

This post is a follow-up to one I wrote on laughter a few weeks ago.  You can find that post in the blog section of my website.

For starters, it’s important to understand that the goal using humor is not just to tell a funny story or a joke. Rather, laughter is the goal, and humor is the pathway to it.  I tell fewer jokes at home, mainly because I live with a seventeen-year-old who has high standards. The other day she said, “Dad, just because it’s a joke, doesn’t mean it’s funny.” Ouch. But that struck a chord with me. Just because I tell a joke intending to lighten the mood, doesn’t mean I should tell the joke at that moment—especially if it doesn’t lead to laughter.

Using humor requires vulnerability and emotional maturity.

A good place to start is the use of self-deprecating humor—talk about vulnerability…  It can work to make people feel comfortable with you.

Ask any standup comedian, when you use humor you have to prepare for rejection—or even heckling.  Sometimes your best intentions are met with a dismissive or harsh response.  When people are lost in their need to be grumpy, self-important, or overly serious, attempts to move them to a happier place results in provoking their defensiveness.  The exact opposite of what you hope for.  When this happens, it’s important to maintain an emotionally open posture—which requires the strength not to shut down…  or become grumpy yourself.

Let me offer some keys to developing an approach to humor that will elicit laughter.

Laugh at Yourself

First, learn to laugh at yourself.  When I was in graduate school, I remember going to class one day in the middle of winter in New England. I’m sitting in a small group, my sinuses are swollen from dust allergies exacerbated by hot, dry classrooms and outside freezing temperatures.  Then someone said something that I thought was stupid. My arrogance was paid in full as in that moment I snorted and, to my great dismay, a large projectile flew from my nose right onto my open notebook. I was traumatized. I slammed my notebook shut—never got to read those notes—and left the small group. In retrospect, I’m still embarrassed to think about it, but I can’t help laughing aloud. The punishment fit the crime! Once I learned to laugh at my most embarrassing moment, it changed me. It was really funny…  and disgusting, but let’s stick with the funny part.

Practice Playfulness

Second, practice playfulness and being light. Laugh at your mistakes, surround yourself with things that make you smile. I have toys in my office. To name a few, I have a bobble-headed Groot and two replicas of the lampshade from Christmas Story—one is a nightlight, and the other is solar-powered so that the shade gently moves back and forth when under light. On the walls there are paintings, including “Beach Dogs,” “Drunk on the Moon,” and “Listening to the Trees.” Cultivating playfulness and a light attitude puts you in the mood to be receptive to laughter.

Stop Dwelling on the Negative

Third, when you find yourself dwelling on the negative, STOP!  The solution is never found in the problem. (Think about that one.)  Instead, choose to be happy. Sometimes it takes a little mental discipline to choose happiness because sad thoughts and mental negativity can be emotionally addictive. Neurologically, the brain can’t process worry and appreciation at the same time because they are on the same neuro pathway. And once you choose the path of “appreciative inquiry,” solutions to problems become more accessible. Negative thinking closes down the mind, appreciation opens it up.

Develop Your Emotional Intelligence

Fourth, develop your EQ, emotional intelligence. The best way to begin is to tune into the emotional state of others. Ask yourself, “how are they feeling?” What cues are they offering with their posture and movement? Don’t interpret, just tune in.  And when you talk, be aware of your own posture. Are you receptive and making eye contact with a smile? Ask yourself, “What do I feel?” By practicing “emotional tuning” you will develop and refine your own emotional intelligence.

Develop Your Fun Quotient

Fifth, develop your FQ (not what you think…  but it is fun to say).  It’s your fun quotient.  In my career, as I moved up through management I lost touch with my FQ—and suspect at times people were saying FQ under their breath. For me it was difficult at first to let my inner child out, to be playful.  But then I developed some friendships that really brought more joy into my life because they were loving, playful, creative people. I decided I wanted that. So I practice. For example, I watch kids at play—that practice alone is extraordinarily instructive. I also play with my dogs; and I have learned to be playful with my friends.  When you develop your FQ you are naturally prone to elicit laughter in others because you live in a fun place, emotionally receptive, emotionally secure.

Manage Your Motives

Finally, manage your motives. Humor is not sarcastic, snide, or meanspirited. It isn’t an inside joke, making fun of someone, or laughing at someone’s expense. It’s not found in passive-aggressive remarks or making someone wrong. These actions are a disguise for insecurity or hurt feelings.

To elicit laughter, you don’t have to be a lively sprite or a comedian. Some of the funniest people I know are the quietest. But they come out with a simple remark at the right moment that makes people laugh and lightens the mood.

When I talk to boards about recruitment, I recommend that they interview candidates for their sense of humor. Is the person playful, light, or fun to be around? Because when you get to the most challenging issues of governance, when there are deep divides in opinion, or when passions run high…  it’s important to laugh.


Laughter Yoga International:

Laughter Online University:

Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor:

Laughter Therapy Enterprises:

Laughter Therapy:

The Health Benefits of Laughter:

HelpGuide, “Laughter is the Best Medicine,”


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.