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As I noted in previous blog posts, a sense of humor is a desirable attribute in a leader. It has served me well throughout my career. In Why It Matters, I mentioned that my “boss” at the National Science Foundation was Erich Bloch. Several people who worked for Erich were intimidated by him. He could be gruff and his typical response when asked for something was, “No!” However, I soon learned that he used this approach to test you, to find out how strongly you felt about your request.

I wasn’t put off by Erich’s responses and persisted in trying to convince him to support my request. I also found that if I could get him to laugh, I was more than halfway home. Beneath his gruff exterior was a person who had a keen sense of humor. However, as I noted in Why It Matters, Erich didn’t want me to inject humor in my presentations, but I found it impossible to resist. Fortunately, when he was in the audience, I noticed that he joined everyone else in laughing at my jokes.

Often, very serious messages can be delivered most effectively by using humor, messages that wouldn’t otherwise be as well received if given seriously. Early in my career, I worked for a person who tended to be very sarcastic and to find fault in others. In all other respects, he was a terrific leader, but he enjoyed making fun of and teasing people. For the purposes of this writing, I’ll call him Sam. No matter what I did, it wasn’t good enough for Sam. If he saw any indication I was inflating a balloon, he would immediately pop it. If I bought a new car, he would tell me how poorly it was rated by Consumer Report; if I was a fan of a particular sports team, he would put it down at every opportunity. He knew he could get under my skin and he took great delight in doing so.

Frequently, Sam was in the audience when I was speaking. So, I began telling a story about a man, named John, who worked for a man, named Sam. I said Sam had one characteristic that really bothered John, he could never say anything good about John or John’s work. John knew Sam loved to duck hunt. So, John saved his money and purchased a very expensive, award-winning retriever. He worked with the dog to the point it could retrieve ducks at a record-setting clip by running on water. John invited Sam to go duck hunting with him, knowing Sam would be very impressed with John’s dog. As they shot ducks, the dog ran across the water, retrieved the ducks and deposited them at their feet. However, Sam made no comment. Finally, John asked Sam, “Didn’t you notice anything unusual about my dog?” Sam replied, “Yeah, he can’t swim!”

Every time I told the story, it received a loud laugh from the audience. And, over time, Sam’s behavior toward me changed. He got the message, stopped needling me, and we became very good friends, thanks to my fictitious dog who could run on water.

Of course, there are times when humor isn’t appropriate. And you don’t want to come across as a comedian. As I stated in Why It Matters, timing is very important. When I gave an on-campus presentation in the process of interviewing for the UA chancellor position, I told a joke. Later, another candidate for the position told the same joke. Fortunately, I was the first person interviewed for the position. Had the schedule of candidates been reversed, my attempt at telling the joke would have had the same reaction as the other candidate’s attempt received.

There are also times when people say something stupid but believe it. When challenged, they say, “Can’t you take a joke? I was kidding.” No one believes them.

Finally, although some people believe sarcasm is an effective communication tool, I don’t. Too often, we hear people defend statements they make that are not well received by claiming they were being sarcastic. Maybe the President of the United States can get away with saying it, but you and I can’t. Lock the sarcasm tool in a closet and leave it at home when you are on the job.


Next: Sense of Humor—Part II