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How humor builds leadership

March 31, 2015
by H. Steven Moffic, MD
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"I buy expensive suits. They just look cheap on me." —Berkshire Hathaway CEO, Warren Buffet

On April 1, 2014, April Fool’s Day, I posted a blog: "The power of negative leadership." The blog was meant to be a bit humorous and even foolish, though I'm not sure all readers took it that way. I’m still getting comments about it.

Before that, I had written, "The best gift is laugher,” meant to highlight the therapeutic effects of laughter. Oddly enough, I had never put the two subjects together otherwise.

Moreover, I now realize that I didn't comment at all about the use of humor and laughter in a recently solicited book chapter on ethical leadership in psychiatry. Why not? Is ethics supposed to be too serious? Or is it because the use of humor by leaders is too fraught with uncertain repercussions?

This, then, seemed to be a fortuitous and serendipitous time to do a more serious  discussion about humor in psychiatric leadership for this April Fool’s Day. You can tell me if that was foolish or not.

Just a joke

Historically, Freud examined humor and jokes in depth. He felt good humor was a way of expression unconscious desires in a socially acceptable way.

In recent times, there has been extensive theorizing and research about the use of humor by leaders in the business world. Such humor seems to be linked to improved morale among workers, enhanced group cohesiveness, and having a positive impact on larger organizational outcomes. Companies like Southwest Airlines and Zappos seemed to have used humor to help brand their successful businesses.

On the other hand, humor can be used negatively to show off or put down staff. The “Dilbert” comics are known for bitingly showing those failures.

But what about my field, psychiatry? Nothing seems to be discussed formally about the use of humor by psychiatric leaders. To try to assess this topic more informally, I asked leaders in psychiatry about their use of humor, as well as any examples of success or failure in doing so.

Here is my summary of some of their insights:

  • A  good joke at the beginning of a meeting tends to relax everyone.
  • Humor and humility seem to go hand in hand.
  • The ability to laugh at oneself is one of the highest indicators of good mental health.

However, they also note:

  • Humor that is hostile often reflects a poorly functioning group or organization.

Over time, these psychiatric leaders better understood how the ever-present aggressive side could be off-putting, and therefore they became more cautious in using humor.

An example of an April Fool’s Day joke came out of a military setting in an attempt to spoof HIPAA regulations. The idea was to float a rumor that there was a new HIPAA regulation that prohibited service members from wearing name tags on their uniforms in a hospital setting because that was "personally identifiable information." Moreover, insignia rank tabs would have to be removed also. I thought, and the joker thought, that it was funny, as it struck at the military's and HIPAA's rigidity about revealing personal information.

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H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic

H. Steven Moffic, M.D. retired from the clinical practice of psychiatry and his tenured...