A Leader’s Humor is Relentlessly Optimistic
Photo: WGF Class 25 celebrates their graduation after four years in the Wexner Graduate Fellowship (not pictured: Dalit Horn and Raysh Weiss).
The following remarks – originally started with a joke – are excerpted from a talk Jeremy gave during last week’s WGF Winter Institute in Fort Myers, Florida.
According to the Pew Study, 42% of North American Jews think that having a sense of humor is an essential part of being Jewish. It overshadows being part of a Jewish community, crushes observing Jewish law and, Spencer — I’m sorry to say — it obliterates eating Jewish foods. As a group, the Jewish people have enjoyed no shortage of hilarious luminaries, many of whom are leaders in this room.
A quick aside — a few of you know that Elka Abrahamson was my childhood congregational rabbi. Family lore is that when I was five, I told my parents that when I grew up I wanted to be like Elka. With a mixture of caution and excitement my parents asked me, “You want to be a rabbi, sweetie?”
“A rabbi? No. I want to be a comedian!”
Despite the shining examples of so many people we have heard from over the past few days, I suggest to you that, as leaders, one of our most under-utilized leadership qualities is our sense of humor.
Allow me to explain by way of a few Wexner-related anecdotes.
Stowe, aside from being famous for hosting so many of our Institutes, is also home to the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream factory. Tucked away on the factory grounds, tombstones mark the final resting places of dozens of discontinued ice cream flavors, including but not limited to Wavy Gravy, Vermonty Python and Schweddy Balls.
May their memory be for a blessing.
Humor encourages risk-taking and gives us permission to be creative. You might hedge to create something safe, conventional, vanilla. On the other hand, if you knew your potential failure would be whimsically memorialized, you might concoct the next flavor to revolutionize the industry, like Or Mars Bar, Cindy Raisin or Elka Abrahamsandwich.
I work at Hillel at Stanford. Every year, students dye the water in a central fountain deep cardinal red in preparation for the big game. I once snapped a picture of the fountain and used it in a community email blast to share our Passover programming. The subject line was: First Plague Strikes Campus. I thought it was pretty clever. Within minutes, I got two emails. One was from a major donor complaining about how inappropriate the email was. The other was from a professor of epidemiology, chastising me for inciting public panic, with links to info about plagues spread by local squirrels. My boss teases me to this day about that one. And her good-natured teasing reminds me that she encourages creative thinking, even if it results in embarrassing public failure.
I especially like to use humor in group brainstorming sessions and teaching settings. By offering an absurd suggestion, I undercut that little monkey in everyone’s head whose natural response to their novel idea is “that’s absurd!” According to Tractate Shabbat, Rabbah bar Nahmani would begin each of his lessons with a milta dibidichuta, a joke. We are told that that opened his students’ hearts to learning. Not a bad idea.
In the work we do in our offices and classrooms and congregations, we have Purim spiels and staff retreats, but it doesn’t need to be anything that formal or elaborate. Experiment with the culture of your team. A playful group email or the right New Yorker cartoon at the top of a meeting agenda can build on shared references or productively lower the temperature during times of group agitation.
Finally, this week, we read one of the only overt jokes cracked in the Torah. Having just left Egypt, the Hebrews ask Moses, “Why did you take us all the way out here to die in the desert? Were there no graves in Egypt?!”
I share this verse to illustrate that not all humor is created equal. Kvetchy, mean, sarcastic humor is slave humor. Instead of encouraging risk-taking or group cohesion, slave humor invokes fear to enforce an inferior status quo. I see slave humor today in racist or misogynistic jokes or snide personal attacks. Slave humor makes the speaker feel better. A leader’s humor does the same for the listener.
A leader’s humor is relentlessly optimistic, even if the subject matter is depressing. It softens a difficult message. It buoys morale. It reveals an important truth. I’m not saying that we should hire stand-up comedians to run our staff meetings. I am saying that in the same way that we deliberately practice our leadership presence and our leadership communication style, we have leadership humor at our disposal. Each of us could benefit from taking humor a little more seriously.
Jeremy Ragent, a current Wexner Graduate Fellow (Class 26), lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and works as the Assistant Director of Hillel@Stanford, organizing large public events that celebrate Jewish life on campus and strengthen alumni, parent, community member and other friends’ connections to Hillel’s work. As a Wexner Fellow/Davidson Scholar, he earned two masters degrees in Public Administration from USC and Jewish Nonprofit Management from the Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management at HUC. Jeremy can be reached at email@example.com.