A leader's humor: If done right, it is worth the effort

  • Published
  • By Gene Kamena
  • Professor of leadership, Air War College
When the attack on Iraq finally began, people were already tired and nerves were on edge. It was February 1991. We had been in the desert now for more than seven months and had just returned from a successful raid some 40 kilometers into enemy territory. We were just given the word to go, to execute the plan we all had worked so hard to build, train to and rehearse.

As the long line of armored vehicles started to move forward, key leaders were summoned for one last meeting with the brigade commander. Standing on the great sand berm, we received an intelligence update from the brigade commander and then it happened. A sergeant, while loading his 40 millimeter grenade-launcher, accidentally fired a round that landed within a few yards of the gathered leaders. Miraculously, no one was hurt, but this certainly did nothing to relieve the stress of the moment.

The brigade commander, a combat veteran, signaled for the vehicle and the sergeant to come over. We all waited for what we were certain would be a very unpleasant situation. The sergeant, visibly shaken, dismounted and walked over to the brigade commander. To our surprise, the colonel put his arm around the sergeant, laughed and said, "That was good shooting. If you do half as well against the enemy, you will be just fine. Now go and give them hell."

That was it -- no butt chewing, no court martial, no Article 15. The commander did not even read the sergeant his rights. I will never forget that moment. The brigade commander's humor served to reduce tension, relieve stress and build morale. His actions were as much for the assembled leaders as they were for the sergeant. It was the right comment, at the right time, for the right reason.

Leading Americans in the defense our nation is serious business. It should not be taken lightly. The requirements of military leadership demand much from those in the profession of arms. Stress, long days and hard decisions are often the norm. Good leaders develop the ability to balance the demands of leadership and yet still not take themselves too seriously. The ability to laugh, make others laugh and relieve tension is a skill to be developed but not to be overdone.

The recent relief of a senior Naval officer from his position as captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise caused me to reflect upon my own career, to recall times when humor by one of my leaders motivated me to go a little further, or try just a little harder to not let that leader down. My memories are still vivid today when just the right word or gesture reduced tension and allowed everyone to breathe easier. Unfortunately, there have also been instances in my career when humor was not used well, when it was in poor taste and did not achieve the desired effect. On the rare occasion I witnessed a leader's humor demean another service member, the joke came at a cost.

My purpose for writing this short article is to cause leaders to take pause and reflect how best to use humor as a positive influence. I have no absolute rules to provide, but experience does permit me to offer some considerations for leaders to ponder:

Be yourself
Act within your nature. If you are comfortable with humor, then use it appropriately. Some leaders have to grow into humor. Others may never get there because it is not in their nature. It is more important for you to be comfortable with your own actions than to attempt humor for humor's sake. Be yourself. Forced humor is never funny.

Ask yourself why
Why do you want to use humor? What is the intended outcome? To relieve stress and tension, to place people at ease, to demonstrate there is more to you than work are all good reasons to employ humor. Some leaders use humor because they have a need for attention or want to be liked. Reasons such as these result in the overuse of humor, making it a distraction. No one wants a clown as their leader, nor do people want a leader who is overly self-important. Balance is the watchword when considering the use of humor. A joke or funny comment should have a beneficial effect on people and the organization.

Humor is not a precision weapon
Humor should never be directed at any person or group. It is an area weapon. I have been the butt of a joke, and I did not find it amusing. When a leader chooses to single out a subordinate or subordinates as objects of humor, others will laugh. People want to be on the winning team, but deep down they will be glad they were not the object of your humor. Humor should never be seen as vindictive, degrading or insulting to anyone. If all cannot laugh, then no one should. The one exception to this point is you. You should be able to laugh at yourself. If done right, others will see that you do not take yourself too seriously, and you have more than one approach to life and work.

The test is 'what would your mother, spouse, or the chaplain say'
Be careful of content. If you have to whisper, or are worried about being recorded, then do not tell the joke. The content of your humor is a view into your character. If you are not comfortable telling the same joke or making the same comment in front of all audiences, including your family, then do not proceed.

In today's politically aware and somewhat sensitive environment, a few leaders may err on the side of caution and shy away from humor as a leadership technique. This would be unfortunate, because the proper use of humor allows a leader to be seen as a real person, someone who is multifaceted. As in all things, humor can be overdone or executed poorly. Mistakes or misunderstandings may occur, but if presented at the right time, for the right purpose, with appropriate content, humor should not only be considered but encouraged.

The profession of arms is serious business; a good laugh may be just what is needed to get you through a bad day.