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,