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I was reading the accursed “Captivate Network” on the elevator today and, as usual, it had some feeble management hints—this time about how leaders can foster a sense of humor.  It caused me to reflect that most of the good leaders I know don’t have much of a sense of humor. I believe this humdrum fact may contain clues about the nature of leadership and the hierarchical structure of human society. 

Like many underlings, when I am at my day job, I have to work hard not to chime in with quips about the (many) ridiculous paradoxes and quirks of the workplace.  Even if everyone else in the office enjoys a bit of clowning, humor sets the big boss on edge.  Although he is too much of a politician to say anything, a careful observer can notice a moment of icy distaste settle on his face when anybody says something funny.

Not Funny

Part of this undoubtedly has to do with his agenda and his calendar.  He runs a tight ship. Things must get done, and time constraints proscribe horseplay. Also the boss has to appear to be fair; and humor has an obvious power to unsettle and alienate. Looking back to middle school we all remember that the class clown could be a terrifying force of mockery and insecurity. A clever comedian can use jokes to exclude people from groups or shame them socially.  Perhaps the boss needs to appear to be entirely above such things so he does not inadvertently slight someone or create a hostile environment. 

But there are larger and more fundamental forces at play concerning bosses’ humorlessness than just good time management and coverage from liability. A comic sensibility is a wonderful tool for dealing with stress and uncertainty, however managers have even better tools for dealing with such things: namely us, their employees, who can be used like chess pieces to solve their problems.  Additionally the boss has charisma, a forceful personality, a logical mind, self-discipline, and an extreme ability to organize things.  What need hath he for laughter? 

Also, as dog owners know, humor is a function of hierarchy. Lower status dogs are funny and amiable.  They roll on their back and put their paws up in submission.  They clown and cavort like puppies.  Alpha dogs are more like wolves or bankers—serious, ruthless, and businesslike.  Perhaps the boss becomes animated and fun when placed in a room filled with his superiors. Although, for the record, I have seen him “making rain” with wealthy individuals—and, although he was most convivial and used many humor-like turns of phrase, I don’t believe he was funny, nor did he particularly enjoy the jokes of others (even as he worked hard to produce an approximation of mirth).

Office Dynamics

Possibly too the boss could be holding his humor in reserve.  In the Hornblower novels (a series of adventure novels about a great naval commander), the admirable captain conducted his life without humor or sentiment except in extreme situations.  When everything was on the line, Hornblower’s subordinates were always shocked to find that their lofty captain was able to make jokes and be extremely affable.  It allowed the sailors to get through the truly trying times–like when their frigate was being blown to smithereens or they were being sent to Paris for public execution.  Perhaps in similar situations other emotionally-restrained bosses could pull off some big laughs.

Finally there is the nature of society. From personal first-hand accounts I know that the despised George W. Bush Junior was funny and amiable, with a knack for making people around him feel at ease.  When he tried the same thing on cameras however it came off as shallow and uncaring.  Any attempts to make fun of himself or the affairs of the nation (and both were frequently patently absurd) were derided by his enemies as callous and oafish. Lincoln apparently had a similar problem but was smart enough not to allow television cameras at official events (and brilliant enough that his witticisms were scintillating even on paper after 150 years). It seems like the current president suffers from such a problem too.  He has certainly receded from being a mildly funny person whom people liked into a distant, dour technocrat. On top of that, even now, American society is still fundamentally puritan with a dislike of idle laughter in favor of good hard work.

I’m sorry to write such a dour and earnest essay concerning the (possible) humor of leaders.  I know whole that whole species of comedy exist concerning how funny bosses are without meaning to be.  I think that such entertainments, however, are aimed at bad bosses, whereas I like and respect my humorless boss as a superb and powerful leader [as an aside, I wrote the boss in this essay as an abstract figure—certainly not my actual bosses, business associates, or editors!].  I even kind of like and admire the hapless United States president (both this one and the last one) for earnestly struggling with the problems of the world night and day in a crazy media environment which usually prevents him from being very human and then requires him to emote like crazy every once in a while. In the final assessment of leadership and humor, though, I fear that, at least in contemporary America, the one usually precludes the other.


Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

September 2010