Our Civic Life Needs More Humor

Amidst concern that he was too old and disengaged from the demands of office, Ronald Reagan commented that: "I have left orders to be awakened at any time in case of national emergency -- even if I'm in a Cabinet meeting." Such self-deprecating humor was one of his signature leadership strengths, used to defuse criticism and build rapport with the public.

Sadly, this skill seems lacking among current presidential contenders, who seem better at scowls than smiles, and too absent in civic life generally. Public discussion is marked by anger, gloom, and forecasted catastrophe. People would rather taunt than reach out to each other. Of course we face daunting challenges, but is there no place for a little wit and laughter? Could these not help us through troubling issues and deeply felt differences? In the 1970s, All in the Family poked fun at our stereotypes while helping us see their absurdity and our common humanity. But we seem unable to laugh across the political and social divide today.

For leaders and would-be leaders, a sense of humor is essential. After the 1960 election, John Kennedy, commenting on the fact that he had campaigned hard in Alaska but lost and won Hawaii easily without ever going there, said: "Just think what my margin might have been if I had never left home at all." It's hard to imagine such a quip today. Seriousness and self-righteousness seem to have driven out the ability to laugh at oneself.

A sense of humor does not ignore the hard work leaders have to do, but it could serve as what the military calls a "force multiplier." Even Dwight Eisenhower, not known to be a barrel of laughs, recognized this: "A sense of humor is part of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done." Studies bear out the need for leaders to have a sense of humor. Robert Half International, in a survey of 492 professionals, found that 97 percent believe managers who have a sense of humor are more effective. A Bell Leadership Institute study of 2,700 workers found that the two most desirable traits in leaders are a strong work ethic and a good sense of humor.

Humor, and laughter, its byproduct, offer potential benefits for the led not just for leaders. Humor works against taking oneself too seriously; it puts balance in one's life. An imbalanced life is a road to a narrowness of thinking and acting. Laughing at oneself is a sign of humility, which is essential for realizing that we do not possess absolute truth, that there is thus room for compromise.

Laughter enables us to close the distance between ourselves and others. It can defuse anger. "Laughter is the shortest distance between two people," the fun-filled pianist Victor Borge once quipped. At a press conference, a female reporter challenged President Kennedy: "Mr. President, the Democratic Platform on which you ran for election promises to work for equal rights for women including equal pay and to wipe out job opportunity discrimination. Now you have made efforts on behalf of others, but what have you done for women according to the promises in the platform?"

With a broad smile, he began his reply with the following: "Well, I'm sure we haven't done enough." In one short sentence he agreed with the criticism and disarmed it, inviting his audience to approach the serious topic without animosity. While appropriate humor does not guarantee we will be more effective, it makes us more likable - and likability for a leader translates into power. For all of us, it lubricates the task of gaining support.

Humor is a powerful way to forge relationships, without which we don't trust each other. Humor creates a culture in which people are more productive. By relieving tension, it frees people to think without the fear and defensiveness that hinder so much of public discourse and can make organizations grim bureaucracies. Humor encourages a sense of perspective, reminding us that things are not so terrible. It creates an atmosphere where play and "crazy" ideas, essential to creativity, are welcome. A fun civic space and fun organizations are more effective. We applaud this at Google and Southwest Airlines. Might we not encourage it also in public life?

Rev. Billy Graham once said: "A keen sense of humor helps us to overlook the unbecoming, understand the unconventional, tolerate the unpleasant, overcome the unexpected, and outlast the unbearable" No one today seems to think that politics and public life have a place for healing humor. By itself, it won't cure our ills, but it could be useful medicine.