Seriously? Laughing all the Way to Leadership
She sat across from me. Collected, elegant, articulate. Her clothes and wig spoke of the Ultra-Orthodox segment to which she belongs. Gradually, she opened a window to her world, to the materials that make up her identity and professional persona. She talked of a complicated childhood, shadowed by her mother’s mental illness and psychotic episodes. Then, out of nowhere it flashes – a witty, poignant remark, a razor-sharp, perceptive and intelligent observation of the situation, of the path leading to her unique personality, of her personal and professional choices.
“It’s the ace up my sleeve,” she said. “I’m funny and that catches people off guard. Most people perceive me as conservative and sober-minded.” She regards this as her best trait, one she had adopted as a survival mechanism while growing up in a difficult family. At a young age, she had come to realize that her ability to view the world through a lens of humor created an alternative reality for her family. One that is optimistic and hopeful.
For her, humor is liveliness. It allows her family to deal with the complexities of life, experience a range of emotions, turn anger into empathy and create kinships. It was not long before she turned her gift into social currency and became that one person without whom no social event is complete. It allowed her to pave a way into people’s hearts and to contend with the rigid patterns of a patriarchal spiritual authority. She even attributes her marriage to the son of a privileged and well-esteemed family in her community – despite the blot of her mother’s illness – to humor. She says that she laughed all the way to a loving, healthy family, which has become an emotional anchor for her extended family. Humor plays a vital role in the resilience of her marriage. She and her husband share the same sense of humor, each able to expound on the other’s jests and jokes and channel them to better their family and social sphere.
She skillfully used humor to break through her community’s cultural tracking and attain an education and a profession. She got her bachelor’s and master’s degrees and now works in a gender-mixed setting.
Still, it came as a surprise to her to find that her sense of humor, which she initially developed as a personal and social defense mechanism and a socialization tool, began to yield returns in her professional life as well. At first, she tried to leave humor out of the professional equation, believing that to gain her peers’ respect and trust, especially at her young age, she must prove herself a no-nonsense professional. With time, however, she came to value her ability to tell a story through a prism of humor. She began to acquire a reputation as a talented speaker and presenter. With the aid of humor, she was able to bridge differences of authority, seniority and status. It allowed her to establish and convey strength without being perceived as authoritative. She used humor as a bonding agent between her subordinates and herself and brought them together around work and common causes. Along the way, she learned that the culture that legitimizes humor as an integral part of the work environment supported her employees in more ways than one. It helped them approach professional challenges, overcome obstacles and resolve issues in an unconventional and creative manner.
“After all, that is the essence of fine humor,” she explained. “The ability to view a situation from a different perspective; to see hidden aspects. Moreover, the intellectual effort required to understand a subtle punch-line is a lot like a workout for the brain. It enhances creativity, originality and sophistication. In fact, anyone gifted with a good sense of humor has these qualities and the regular use of humor hones them.”
Experience has taught her that humor is a means to social and professional mobility. It allowed her to blaze her own trail – to raise a family and choose a profession. It enables her employees to gain recognition and visibility in a less traditional fashion.
I sat there, captivated by her story. In an uncanny way that I have yet to comprehend, the personal stories of the clients who arrive at my career consultancy clinic reflect different aspects of my own personal and professional narrative. Her journey with humor reflected parts of my own career in management. For more than two decades, I held senior management positions in organizations that assist people through complicated life circumstances: sexual assault, AIDS, abject poverty, Holocaust survivors, children and at-risk youth. I had the privilege of leading multi-profession teams who were committed, dedicated and motivated by ideology and a sense of purpose and value. However, the subjects with which we dealt were intricate and threatened our emotional security: death, violence, poverty and abuse of power were just a few of them. Secondary trauma was at our door-step almost daily, resources were scant and the financial compensation – modest. The organizational structure was rather one-dimensional, comprising only of the director – yours truly – and the heads of fields. Obviously, no tangible incentives were available.
It was all too clear that to preserve this human capital, I would have to create an organizational culture that people would gladly come to every morning. I had to find a way to make them feel appreciated, offer them opportunities to establish unique expertise in their respective fields. I wanted to convey that even at early stages of their careers, their opinion counts, their voice is heard and that they can make a difference not only in individual people’s lives, but also promote overall social change through legislation, policy and public awareness.
Furthermore, in an environment in which our job was to reach out to people who, despite their circumstances, decided to choose life, humor proved to be a powerful tool that could move mountains. It lightens the load in difficult times, alleviates tension, helps resolve conflicts (if you’ve never found yourself in the middle of an organizational conflict, stoked by burning ideological passion – you have something to look forward to), replaces strict hierarchies with partnerships, portrays superiors in a softer light and mitigates mistakes through self-humor. It is an effective tool for coping with fear and our existential vulnerability through dark humor, and above all, for a moment allows us to unburden the heavy “cross” we bear doing “God’s work.”
For a team of employees, humor can be a gift, an empowering safety net of sorts, which protects and nurtures. For those in leadership it is a fine tapestry that must be skillfully woven into the organizational fabric.
When using humor at work, a reverse law applies: what is permitted to the “student” is forbidden for the “rabbi.” As much as an organizational environment may encourage the use of humor, it still behooves those in higher positions to bear in mind that anything said in jest can lead to unintended interpretations and can be considered more offensive than when said to a peer group, or even a lower ranking employee to a superior.
This calls for the utmost caution, even to the point of holding one’s tongue. Under such circumstance, humor should be applied within the appropriate context and used positively and not for the sake of criticism. Leaders must ensure that humor serves to connect and bond and not to exclude or form closed cliques.
As humor has unique characteristics, the line between what is appropriate and conducive to a work environment and what is not – can be very thin. Some types of humor can be misused to conceal sexual harassment, hostility, discrimination and even bullying. The more an organization encourages the use of humor, the higher the risk of it being used improperly, as in “It’s just a joke! Lighten up!” or “She just doesn’t have a sense of humor.”
This lays great responsibility at a leader’s door.
Like other managerial tools, humor is an acquirable skill that can be honed and refined with time. It must be in tune with the organizational environment, its world of content, network of relations, the situation it comments on and the context in which it arises. Humor is not necessarily suitable for all organizations or for every member thereof. There are many variables to consider before encouraging its use – the type of organization, its field of operation, the nature of its activity and the significance of the work to the lives and identities – professional, social, community and family – of its members.
Not everyone has the skills to use humor. It is nothing less than an art form, and one with a strong social nature at that. You are truly talented only when your use of humor yields laughter, joy and elation and helps lift up others. Humor is culture-based and derives from the fields of knowledge and interest and associative worlds of the individuals who are part of the joke.
Every use of humor on the part of those whose social or professional status places them in the center of attention involves an element of risk. If the joke goes over well and elicits genuine laughter, you’re the star of the show. If it is met with awkward silence, or worse – is perceived as offensive – you might be branded as “out of touch” with reality or “not the brightest bulb in the box.” Better to first test the waters to make sure that – as Groucho Marx said – “Before I speak, I have something important to say.”
*The writer sincerely apologizes for writing an entire piece on humor without including not even a single humorous sentence.
Get To Know The Author
Wexner Israel Fellow Tal Korman (Class 14) is an independent career development consultant, who works with organizations promoting vocational leadership among underprivileged women as well as with individual clients. She has served as the Director of the Southern District of the Legal Aid Administration, Ministry of Justice, since 2013. Between 2005 and 2012 she served as the Director of the Public Interest Law Center at Tel-Aviv University’s Faculty of Law. She received her LLB from the Hebrew University Faculty of Law (1992) and her MPA from Harvard University, the Kennedy School of Government (2003) as a Wexner Israel Fellow. Tal served as a military prosecutor for the IDF (1992-1994) and worked as an attorney in the private sector, specializing in Torts, Insurance and Labor Law. In her previous roles, Tal has promoted the prevention of sexual violence, the status and rights of sexual assault survivors, the elimination of AIDS dispersion and the support to people living with HIV/AIDS. She has been performing volunteer work for rape crisis centers since 1994. She has also worked for five years in educating children with special needs.