Leadership is a Laughing Matter

17 July 2017 By Will Brodie

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Leaders can learn a lot from comedy.


Steve Cody, co-founder of digital communications agency Peppercomm, says stand-up comedy made him a better business executive.

“Comedy hones one's storytelling and listening skills and trains you to build rapport with a crowd… stand-up forced me to learn best practices for dealing with a negative or, even worse, totally impassive audience.”

Cody made stand-up and improvisational comedy “core components” of his company’s management training. He says it forged a “tighter, more collegial and fun culture”.

Broadcaster Liz Fraser challenged herself to perform 25 stand-up shows.

“I think I learned more from those 25 hours of terror than I’ve learned throughout my entire professional life.”

She says there was “a huge overlap” between stand-up comedy and the everyday workplace.

“Both… require confidence, the ability to deal with moments of self-doubt and fear, the art of perfect timing, as well as a knack for observing and responding to an audience.”

Second City Works is a business-to-business improvisation school, aimed at making executives better leaders.

CEO Tim Yorton likened comedic improvisation to yoga for social skills.

"It puts you in a mindful, present place, where you're concentrating with eye contact with the person in front of you. You're not thinking about before, or about after."

"It's how to listen, how to read a room, how to work collaboratively on teams, how to respond to failure and how to be nimble and agile and adaptive when the unexpected happens."

Yorton says a leader, like a comedian, must "work well with an ensemble, create something out of nothing, and respond to the unexpected...."

Jason LeDuc, founder of Evil Genius Leadership Consultants, concentrates on a key tool of improvisational comedy.

" ‘Yes, and…’ is a rule in improv that encourages each individual participant to accept what the other players have set up in the scene and also sets the expectation each member will add their own contribution to further advance the story."

He says using ‘Yes, and…’ at team working sessions creates a collaborative attitude. 

“Don’t allow your team members to outright dismiss another’s idea, but instead focus them on adding to it to make it better from their perspective. Throw nothing away, keep building on what is there and making it better.”

An Australian academic agrees that humour is a useful tool for the modern workplace.

Professor Charmine Hartel from the University of Queensland told Radio National’s Best Practice program her research showed “very clearly” that employees “want and expect” their leaders to use humour.

“The important thing to keep in mind is as long as the organisation and leaders have already created a group or team environment where there is trust… then humour has very positive impacts.”

In the short-term, employees experience positive emotions. Long-term, she says they build up their “psychological capital”, which consists of “hope, optimism, resilience and self-esteem”.

Hartel says a leader need not perform stand-up for her crew. Sharing a humorous clip or cartoon can be enough.

But, as Steve Cody says, the leader who learns some comedic skills can “help create an authentic, transparent culture and improve morale”.


Be yourself: Use your own insights and weaknesses.

Write, edit, perform, repeat. Good comedians prepare diligently, and they endlessly hone jokes. Business presentations can always be more concise.

Yes… and: Encourage collaboration.

Don’t let the audience faze you: Sometimes amused people don’t laugh.

Silence is golden: The pauses are when the crowd gets your joke (or point).

Fake it: Look confident, and your audience will go with you.

Build trust: Get the relationships right before cracking wise.