What Does Laughter Have to Do with Great Leadership?
From Lincoln to Gandhi, Einstein to Nancy Pelosi, and Winston Churchill to Barack Obama, great leaders share a trait that is often overlooked – a sense of humour.
I recently interviewed Dr. Teruni Lamberg on my podcast Laugh Long and Prosper. Dr. Lamberg is an associate professor of mathematics education at the University of Nevada. She holds a doctorate in mathematics education from Arizona State University and a Post Doctorate from Vanderbilt University.
Dr. Lamberg has been a college professor for over 17 years.
Dr. Lamberg discovered that humour separates superior leaders from lackluster and/or boring ones! A funny bone! A haha when things are not so funny. A prolific author and speaker, and a leading learning expert, Dr. Teruni Lamberg extensively researched this topic for her seminars and book Leaders Who Lead Successfully. She shares her innovating ideas on leading, motivating, and aligning project teams.
Dr. Lamberg and I talked about humour and leadership. Here are some excerpts from that interview:
Judy: Time and time again, humour has been an overlooked common denominator when looking at great leaders throughout history. Thank you for coming on the show.
Dr. Lamberg: I’m glad to be here. It’s nice to know that you are a humourist as well.
Judy: I knew the power of humour a long time ago. I see it in individuals, comedy clubs and workplaces, but I was really intrigued by your research that confirmed how necessary humour is when it comes to leadership. Some of the examples that you gave were incredible. Can you share them with our listeners?
Dr. Lamberg: It actually happened accidently. I was working on a state wide project with teachers. One day it dawned on me as we were laughing together and bantering back and forth. I remember turning to my colleague and saying, “We know that we are productive when we laugh and when there is playful banter. How do we quantify this?”
I think one of the things with humour is that it puts people at ease. But it has to be natural.
I’ve been to places where people try to be funny but they’re not. When humour comes naturally, it gets people to interact. For example, including humour in a PowerPoint when starting the day. My colleagues played a joke on me. Apparently, I can’t park. I thought I was good at driving (laugh). But they ended up doing a documentary about my parking. Everybody was laughing. With that, we were then able to get into more complex things. Subtly, we were able to join together. When you create humour, you are also creating relationships and a level of comfort. You can’t laugh if you’re not comfortable.
What I found in my leadership research is that an innovative leader – a leader who motivates people – knows how to make people feel comfortable. They know how to create an environment where people feel welcomed to sit at the table and discuss their ideas.
Judy: When you are dealing with really complex issues, you need people to sit back, relax and take a deep breath. Laughter has that effect.
Dr. Lamberg: Yes, I actually interviewed a lot of famous researchers. How do ordinary people do extraordinary things in their work with their teams? Their teams actually changed things nationally and internationally in terms of research. One researcher from UCLA mentioned that they would have a retreat with all the graduating students and faculty members and they would cook together. As they cooked together, they were laughing and joking. As this was taking place, they were also brainstorming because they were relaxed. They were creating innovative connections. I was wondering how to generate innovative ideas and how do you do that in teams?
Judy: Indeed. Not only is laughter bonding but it’s contagious and it helps us cut through so many social barriers when we laugh with someone.
Dr. Lamberg: Yes, if you walk into a room and nobody is laughing and it looks really tense, chances are you’re going to have a harder time getting things done. Of course, there are times when you have to focus.
Humour is generated when there are relationships between people. You’re not going to tease somebody or crack a joke if you don’t feel comfortable with that person.
Whether you’re running a meeting or putting a team together, you really should think about what it takes to create an environment that makes people feel comfortable.
I notice, Judy, that you do a lot of work with mindfulness. Like mindfulness, humour helps you catch your breath. Can you tell me a little bit about mindfulness? I think it’s interesting to connect humour with that.
Judy: Well, what I always say to my audiences is, “When we laugh, we relax. When we relax, we learn.”
I teach stand-up comedy. I notice that a lot of new students panic when they first start the course. Their ‘fight or flight’ response naturally forces their brain to go into ‘survival mode’ or, in other words, their left logical brain. I need them to get to their right-brain, bright, creative side to make connections between various random subjects and then find the funny. So, I found that by doing improv along with mindfulness and meditation exercises, those students were more relaxed afterwards and thus, more open to create.
Dr. Lamberg, I noticed in your leadership studies that humour came up over and over again.
It doesn’t surprise me that whether it’s on the stage or in the boardroom, humour is a wonderful leadership tool that quite frankly, I don’t think we use enough.
Dr. Lamberg: You made a really interesting point. In comedy, you try to make connections between different ideas. That’s really what creativity is all about- the ability to see patterns and make connections. Sometimes those connections happen when you are in a state of flow and your brain is relaxed. It allows you to think outside the box. As opposed to when you are trying to force yourself to think.
Also, when you have a group of people together, not everybody feels the same level of power.
You’re a professor and someone else thinks, well I have don’t have a PhD so I don’t have something to say. But I think it’s about just getting people comfortable and developing that relationship. I think that humour allows everyone to put themselves on a similar level where they can share their stories. A sense of humour allows us to be more human.
Judy: It’s funny that you talk about taking away those levels of power.
On one of my previous podcasts, I was interviewing a Danish friend about a tradition in Denmark called hygge. Part of hygge (which roughly translates to the word ‘cosiness’) is a sense of community. The average Dane belongs to three associations. Those gatherings allow people of various occupations, ages, gender, experience to play a game and/or engage on the same level. People discover what they have in common. As a result, they get an opportunity to think freely and collaborate.
Dr. Lamberg: Everybody has something of value to contribute. Everybody in the room has life experiences, work experiences or just different perspectives. They are able to think outside the box because they are not clouded by some particular lens.
My research showed that the leaders who were really successful talked about being able to take in different voices and opinions. Sometimes, during informal gatherings (like the cooking class or a coffee break), someone might suddenly say, ‘Oh that’s a good idea. I need to go back and write that down’.
Humour creates relationships and creates the environment to be comfortable. If you’re comfortable, then you are relaxed and you have a greater chance for deeper thinking and making connections between ideas.
Judy: I was doing a virtual presentation for a group last month and they were giving out leadership awards. The awards weren’t based on seniority or years served but they were strictly based on good ideas. If you brought a good idea to the table (e.g., Frank from IT showed us a neat little trick on our computers to save time) then Frank got an award.
Good ideas are good ideas no matter who they come from.
Dr. Lamberg: Humour comes with building a community – an identity for a company. It makes people feel like they are part of the group. Humour is the glue that holds people together.
Judy: Humour is part of our caveman brain. We want to belong to the clan. Humour is a way of showing our open hand. “Look, I don’t have any weapons. I’m making a joke about myself. I’m showing my vulnerability. I’m not going to hurt you. Let’s work together.”
I’ve always believed that humour is a sign of leadership.
When a problem or a crisis arises, everybody else in the group freaks out but it’s the true leader who can find hope, happiness or laughter to get their team through those dark times. They keep moving forward.
Dr. Lamberg: Think of the flip side to that. At the end of a long hard day, petty things become more important. Humour humanizes the situation.
We need humour, especially now. It brings joy no matter what you’re doing.
Judy: Dr. Lamberg, before I let you go, what were some of the other qualities of good leadership that you found in your studies?
Dr. Lamberg: Passion, aligning actions with higher purpose (in other words, walking the talk), integrity, and the ability to motivate others or to communicate an idea by painting a picture or using humour.
I think in order to use humour, you really have to observe what is going on in the room. In fact, the times that I laugh the most are when someone notices the humour in everyday things. I think that is much harder to pull off.
Judy: I love observational humour. It’s like problem solving. It’s looking at the same situation as everybody else and finding the solution – finding the connection between A and B with a punchline. Dr. Lamberg, thank you for joining me. It’s been my absolute pleasure.
Dr. Lamberg: Thank you, Judy.
Judy: If you would like to reach Dr. Lamberg, here is her contact info.
Website: Optimized Learning
Don’t be shy. You can check out my Laugh Long and Prosper podcast on Spotify or Soundcloud.
Laugh Long and Prosper is shelf help with a smile, stressbusters with a smirk, and information with a wink wink. You get the point. On Mondays, I host the podcast Just Another Mindful Monday. The full podcast interview with Dr. Lamberg aired Monday April 5th 2021 and is available here.
Until next time folks,
I know…not exactly the most hilarious, side-splitting way to open a conversation or a comedy show, for that matter. Ah, remember the good old days when we used to do comedy shows???
Relax, Chicken Little. I bring some good news, even as I write this after a see-saw US election that still hasn’t been completely resolved. This good news comes in the form of two amazing books that coaxed me out from underneath my comforter and back into the real world.
Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress by Canadian psychologist Steven Pinker, and Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World – And Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Swedish physician and statistician Hans Rosling. Both books are really uplifting and perfect for the challenging times that we are going through.
Maybe it’s all fake news?
I don’t think so. These books are based upon facts. Remember when we used to care about facts? Also, each book comes with a heavy hitter list of endorsements including two people you might have heard of.
‘A hopeful book about the potential for human progress when we work off facts rather than our inherent biases.’
‘My new favorite book of all time.’
I’m no Barack Obama or Bill Gates, but my Goldendoodle Barnie thinks I’m pretty swell.
I give 10/10 to both books, too!
Okay, great, so Barnie loves you. What are some takeaways from Factfulness?
Facts! Lots of good facts!
-In the past 20 years, extreme poverty has been cut in half.
-60 percent of girls in low-income countries finish public school.
-80 percent of 1 year-olds in the world have been vaccinated against certain types of disease.
What are some takeaways from Enlightenment Now?
Again, lots of solid facts. For example, we are fighting world famine.
In 1973, just forty-seven years ago, one-third of the world was malnourished.
Today, because of advances in science and agriculture, that percentage is down to 13 percent and scientists are working to bring that statistic down even further.
Did you know that just 150 years ago, people starved to death in Sweden because winter was so long? In 1820, 90 percent of the world lived in extreme poverty, but trade encouraged countries to put differences aside.
Globally, there is more wealth and less inequality.
Globalization and technology are helping more countries get wealthier.
The wealthier a country is, the more likely it is to spend on social programs.
The wealthier a country is, the more unlikely it is to be influenced by militant groups.
What about climate change?
Both books state that developments in science and technology are pushing us to get our carbon dioxide emissions cut in half by 2050 and eliminated by 2100.
What about the current political climate – especially, you know where?
Political ‘glitches’ happen every now and then throughout history but hopefully, a growing number of young, educated, more tolerant voters will help make the world a better place in the future. It may not be happening fast enough for most of us who couldn’t peel ourselves away from the TV set on November 3rd, but the demographics are changing.
What about Covid?
Oh yeah, that. Well, researchers are working around the globe and the clock.
As a planet, we have faced many challenges in the past, including war, disease, natural disasters, and political upheavals, just to name a few. But as the facts have shown us over and over again (see my last blog Humankind by Rutger Bregman) the worst actually brings out the best in most humans. It’s better to bet with clan than against it. Sometimes, when things get really, really dark, we laugh with the clan. It helps to stop us from freezing in fear and it keeps us moving forward. We laugh, we learn, we overcome, we do better.
Until we discover a vaccine for Covid, continue practicing the three W’s:
-Wash your hands
-Watch your distance
-Shop at Walmart
-Wear a mask
And don’t forget to laugh. I had the pleasure of working with Monty Python’ John Cleese a few years back. The man is brilliant and obviously hysterical. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from him:
‘Laughter connects you with people. It’s almost impossible to maintain any kind of distance or any sense of social hierarchy when you’re just howling with laughter. Laughter is a force for democracy.’
Until next month,
Admit it. How many of you got dragged into the virtual presentation world, kicking and screaming? How many of you had nightmares of sweat dripping down your forehead one minute before the green light came on in front of a virtual roomful of clients? How many of you felt like Dave from Space Odyssey 2001?
“HAL, open the pod bay doors!!”
“I’m sorry Judy, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
“All right, HAL. I’ll go in through the emergency airlock.”
“Without your space helmet, Judy, you’re going to find that rather difficult.”
Okay, so maybe this was my imagination going overboard.
For the past few years, I have been encouraged by friends and clients to do more video presentations. As a comedian and motivational speaker, I have always enjoyed live presentations and conferences.
In the past, I had been speaking and coaching virtually with some of my clients but then COVID hit. The game changed overnight. There wasn’t an option to do conferences or comedy shows.
So, like many, I was forced to make a choice. Wait it out or go all-in virtually.
I have to admit, the idea of speaking into a green light for an hour was a bit daunting. It was so different. However, I took a lot of inspiration from my two sisters. One is a speech-language pathologist and the other is an elementary school teacher. I was impressed with how they both learned the new technology necessary for their work and adapted, almost overnight. They had never done virtual presentations before. They were motivated by their young students and clients who really needed them to step up.
I don’t think people give themselves enough credit for making such a huge shift in such a relatively short time. They beat themselves up for not ‘getting it’. Luckily, both of my sisters were able to lean on their teenagers to help them navigate the new information asteroid fields. I’m sure there were some eye-rolling and gum-smacking along the way, but those little astronauts stepped up too.
I was proud of my nieces and nephews. All those years spent on Snapchat and Tik Tok (or Tic Tac, as my dad calls it) finally paid off.
So, if my sisters could step up for those that virtually needed them, then so could I.
During my first mission right after COVID, I talked to the green light for an hour and then I said goodbye. The green light went out.
It was just me alone in my pod.
I had no idea how the presentation went over.
It was only afterward when I received some nice comments from the organizers and participants via email and LinkedIn, that I knew that the presentation was a hit. Phew.
My next few presentations were via WebEx. Although WebEx isn’t as user friendly as Zoom, it is apparently more secure and as a result, a common choice for various businesses. Also, if it was good enough for guests on CNN then heck, I thought, it should be good enough for me. I may not be as political or incendiary as some of those talking heads but I bet I could still make Don Lemon laugh.
Since then, the platforms have changed but the work itself remains the same. Whether you are talking into a green light or a roomful of people, be yourself, tell your story, don’t be a HAL, be human and make sure you don’t have any space food on your face.
We’re all on the same ship together. It’s a new world but let’s travel safely.
Don’t get rattled. As HAL might suggest, “Look, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.”
It will be different but we’ll be fine.
Until next time, Laugh Long and Prosper.
Recently, I read a terrific book – Humankind by Rutger Bregman.
Bregman asked, ‘What did Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt have in common?’
They all read a book called The Psychology of the Masses by French author Gustave Le Bon. Le Bon’s main premise is that when all hell breaks loose, humans turn into barbarians. We turn on each other. Chaos is created and as a result, an enemy’s attack is made easier. The flames of fear are good for the oppressor.
Though this ‘survival- of- the- fittest’ mentality may be the case for a small percentage of people, Bregman gives numerous examples throughout history that prove the contrary. His stories and statistics prove that overall, the kids are alright – humans are pretty darn amazing.
Bregman provides the example of the bombing of England during the second World War.
In 1940, Hitler sent 348 Luftwaffe bombers to London. He probably hoped panic and chaos would make the English more vulnerable and easier to overthrow. British authorities worried as well. In anticipation of the panic that war with Germany would create, British authorities built emergency psychiatric wards throughout the country.
Yes, as expected, the bombings were horrific. London alone suffered 40,000 casualties.
However, the psychiatric wards for the most part remained empty.
Churchill encouraged the Brits to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. The English tried to live their lives as normally as possible. The trains continued to run. People shopped. Kids played.
In fact, some people reported feeling psychologically better off than before the bombings started. Suicide rates were down and alcohol abuse decreased.
Why this ‘strange’ reaction in the face of death and fear? As it turned out, average civilians helped each other like they never had before. Hitler’s bombs had the opposite effect – they brought people closer together. Chaos was replaced with camaraderie. Similarly, Bregman describes how so many ‘hardened’ New Yorkers risked their lives to save strangers during that horrific morning of Sept 11th, 2001.
Throughout the ages, contrary to what warlords, dictators and autocrats have and continue to hope for, the worst actually brings out the best in most of us. It is instinctive to choose good. It is safer to be with the clan than against it.
If you need further proof, consider these statistics. According to 700 separate field studies at The Disaster Research Centre in Delaware, the number of murders, thefts and rapes actually decrease in the wake of catastrophe.
So why do we always think the sky is falling?
Fear sells. Left- and right-wing media giants are both guilty.
Bad news is big business.
So, what should we do as we face our recent global ‘attack‘, Covid 19?
Perhaps we should continue to exercise caution, listen to the scientists and, every now and then (and trust me, I’m guilty of this too), turn off CNN. Bye- bye Anderson Cooper.
Keep Calm and Carry On and hey, it doesn’t hurt to crack a smile every now and then.
Until next time, laugh long and prosper.
At the beginning of the year, I started with 12 resolutions – one for each month. Then COVID-19 struck. My journal became more about coping during a pandemic vs a ‘things to do’ blog.
I have to admit that, like everyone else, I freaked out.
Conferences and comedy clubs were shut down. I know this is nothing compared to what a lot of people are dealing with but for me, it was my way of life for many years.
As I faced the abyss of unknowing, a very obvious answer smacked me right in the face. What was I teaching others for years??? ‘Relieving stress with HUMOUR’!!! Uh- should I not take my own advice?? So, I found myself leaning on all the funny people around me. Yes, the humour was dark at times but I know now that that was all part of our right, bright, creative brains trying to get us to calm down.
Laughter is a great way to trigger our right, bright, creative brain and parasympathetic nervous system. Our parasympathetic nervous system is the flight attendant that tells your body to calm the hell down, put your oxygen mask on and breathe as the left brain, sympathetic nervous system pilot tries to land the plane.
We would be nowhere without both of them.
Humour is a great button to hit to ask for help from our flight attendant. So is gratitude. Gratitude also triggers our parasympathetic nervous system.
When we say thank- you to our flight attendant for our free pretzels, we have a better chance of staying in our right, bright, creative brain than when we start screaming about having to pay five bucks for Pringles.
I was in a ‘minor’ automotive altercation this month. My left-brain pilot got me safely to the side of the road. My right- brain flight attendant said, “Stay calm, don’t freak out. Aren’t you grateful that you are safe?”
By staying calm, my right- brain guided me to summon two angels (CAA and my mechanic). Everything worked out and in a couple days, I was back in the pilot’s seat.
Yes, temporarily the skies were dark. Comedy clubs and conferences were shut down.
Again, my right-brain flight attendant said aren’t you grateful that you are safe? Aren’t you grateful for all the work that you’ve had in the past? Also, ma’am, can you please stop crying hysterically and kicking the back of that baby’s chair?
I did all of the above. I stopped crying. I stopped kicking. I expressed gratitude and that baby is part of my act now.
All of the work in the past lead to new and former clients (who were as unsure about the rocky horizon as I was) asking me to bring some relief in the form of my presentation- virtually.
Left brain or right brain, young or old, economy or business class – we always have a choice.
Panic and run through the aisles or put on your mask (which means SO much more nowadays) and breathe and, oh yeah, don’t forget to laugh.
Until next time, I’m your pilot AND flight attendant, Judy Croon.
Laugh long and prosper.
At the beginning of this year, I committed to making 12 resolutions – one per month.
Then Coronavirus struck. I actually managed to keep up my monthly goals but suddenly, it seemed more important to replace a regular list of ‘things to do’ with ‘things that were getting me through’ a global pandemic.
One of my pandemic survival ‘go to’ tools has been carving out a new routine. Part of my new daily routine includes an evening tradition of banging pots with my neighbours.
There’s a regular gang of us who step out every night for two minutes at 7:30 pm to bang pots, pans, drums and whatever other loud utensils we can get our hands on. You would think that, after all these weeks we would be able to take our show on the road. No, we are NOT perfect (in fact, some nights we are probably ear- shatteringly awful) but, like many other neighbourhoods across the globe, it is our small token of appreciation for all the front-line workers who are doing their best to keep us safe from Covid19.
I have to admit that there have been times, as I was banging my pot, I was thinking, “What does it really matter? We’re not close enough to a hospital for staff or patients to actually hear us.”
However, I suddenly just found out last night that a nurse, a couple of doctors and a former medical scientist live on my street. By now you’re thinking, “Wow, Jude -way to really get to know your neighbours! Way to socialize!”
Or maybe you’re thinking, “Who the hell let you onto that street??”
Look, I probably still don’t know most of my neighbours’ names (but if they have a cat or a dog, I probably know THEIR names).
The point is, we are all in this together. We all contribute something. Big or small.
Thank you to the front-line workers and all of the workers on all of our streets for keeping us safe.
As comedian Chris Rock says, “When you’re in a band, you have roles that you play in the band. Sometimes, you sing lead. And sometimes, you’re on tambourine. And if you’re on tambourine, play it right. Play it with a fuckin’ smile, because no one wants to see a mad tambourine player.”
I’m going to start playing my Teflon fry pan with a great big smile.