Board and CEO Advisory Partners

Why a Little Levity Is an Essential Leadership Quality

 



Working adults are “in the midst of a laughter drought,” said Eric Tsytsylin in a TED-like presentation at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business seven years ago. I wonder how Tsytsylin would characterize our laughter drought today. We’re under a siege of issues that require our full attention, but how long is it sustainable without a little relief from our dehydration?

Research from Wharton, MIT, and London Business School concludes that “laughter relieves stress and boredom, boosts engagement and well-being, and spurs not only creativity and collaboration but also analytic precision and productivity.”

I recall a time in my career when we experienced a similar laughter drought. We were in the midst of the economic downturn in 2009, and I was about a year into my leadership role as CEO of Prologis. We were still on the ropes, but our stock value was slowly improving. As things started to look better for us, it was time to bring all the leaders from our offices in Europe, Asia, and the Americas together for a weekend in Colorado. I thought it would be a great opportunity to connect while giving our fatigued team the moral support of one another in person.

I chose to take the team on a hike that would lead us to one of the huts overseen by the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association in Colorado. I envisioned an authentic Colorado trip for this hardworking group and looked forward to our time away from the constant pressure at the office.

Having worked up an appetite from our hike to the hut, we devoured dinner and made time to talk shop before we settled in to play cards. As the night wore on, a colleague and I decided to retire early -- but not before playing a prank on the rest of the group. We crept upstairs, quickly hid everyone’s clothes, and pretended to sleep.

Later, everyone else made their bleary-eyed way to the second floor, hands outstretched to navigate dark and unfamiliar surroundings. As they discovered their clothing was gone, it was all my colleague and I could do not to shake with laughter under our covers.

Clearly, we were the culprits. Before the others could think of some leverage to get their clothes back, our chief investment officer—who was at the end of his short fuse—grabbed a fire extinguisher, and pointed it at my partner-in-crime. We fought to keep our eyes closed and our breathing calm so we didn’t blow our plan, but our CIO was done waiting. After several warnings, he pulled the pin and opened up the entire contents of the canister on my colleague.

Pressurized carbon dioxide exploded all over the room!

Seconds later, we all were coughing and scrambling down the stairs, straining to catch our breath.

Once we opened all the windows and collapsed into chairs on the first floor, we started laughing at how ridiculous it all was. We were grown men covered in chalky powder and now we had to deal with a second floor that looked like a complete whiteout.

Humor Can Be Your Multiplier

The whole team went on to do great things for the company—and I like to think our ability to laugh together had a good deal to do with that. In fact, I’ve found that humor can be an essential multiplier of leadership values—particularly humility, honesty, and heart, or what I call a 3H-Core. I believe great leaders live and lead by these three values. Simply put:

  • Humility frames how leaders see themselves.
  •  Heart frames how leaders see others.
  • Honesty is the action that leaders take to connect them together.

Each one of these values are important for leaders to exhibit in the workplace as they manage people, motivate teams, and pursue goals. When you live out your beliefs and allow yourself to couple them with some levity, a formidable culture becomes your competitive advantage—especially when you need it most. Allow me to explain:

Humility

Humor accentuates humility because it allows us to engage in brief moments of vulnerability that, typically, are low risk and high return. In other words, psychologically safe. After the dust literally and figuratively settled on the first floor of that mountain hut, our ability to laugh at ourselves as we blinked away the white powder all over our faces meant we were willing to bear the brunt of a prank. It was a conspiratorial and safe moment—we were all in on the joke.

The shared vulnerability we experienced enabled us later to accept our imperfections with a healthy perspective back at the office. And that perspective allowed us to approach the workplace in a more lighthearted way. Together, we learned never to underestimate the importance of our ability to humbly laugh at ourselves when leading others. It only makes us more human.

Honest

Honesty is another 3H-Core value that’s enhanced by humor. Often what makes something funny is one person’s brutal honesty and willingness to say what everyone is thinking. For example, one of the companies whose board I serve on likes to familiarize us with the staff beyond C-level attendees. So, they invite rising executives to join us for dinner the night before our meetings begin. It’s a great way to get to know the company in a casual setting.

As we debated about how this evening would be replicated virtually, the ubiquitous Zoom call was suggested in lieu of our dinner. A fellow board member joked, “It’s too bad we can’t have this get together over a bottle of wine if we’re supposed to have ‘dinner conversation.’”

The company’s CEO didn’t miss a beat; he said, “We can do that!” It wasn’t long before a carefully wrapped bottle of wine arrived at the homes of everyone invited to the next meeting. This simple change in the tenor of our conversation is a perfect example of how honesty buoyed by humor helped us arrive at a creative alternative to business as usual.

Heart

Lighthearted moments can also show the heart of a leader. For instance, if you had told me that showing my heart for coworkers might have meant deep knee bends and alternating kicks to a rousing Israeli folk song, I wouldn’t have believed you. But when my staff challenged my colleague and me to a friendly dance-off at our annual holiday party years ago, I was happy to oblige because I knew it was symbolic of something greater.

On the surface, we were all laughing and enjoying the moment as the song reached an exhausting pace. Below the surface, something equally wonderful was happening. Our staff was experiencing our lighthearted and approachable side. That shared experience and others like it would create goodwill everyone could draw upon in tougher times. Forming a people-first culture means putting an emphasis on others who work for your organization in a variety of ways—even when it involves a dizzying performance of “Hava Nagila.”

Humor is subjective, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t attempt it. A little levity is a great way to exercise these leadership values in a safe context where budgets, pilot programs, or goals aren’t at risk. Instead, your staff can experience who you are as a person, which makes it easier when work takes on increasing pressure.

Human nature requires a balance of emotions for us to sustain any effort over the long haul. The good-natured laughs you share become the bond you can lean on for years to come. As we make our way forward in the near future, I hope you find your own opportunities for laughter like we did in the stories I’ve shared above. If you do decide to give a little levity a whirl, don’t forget to hide the fire extinguisher!

Walt Rakowich is an author, leadership speaker and former CEO of Prologis, a global real estate company that is the world’s largest owner of industrial distribution facilities. When he took over the reins of the company, it had nearly collapsed with a stock valuation that was down over 95 percent in ten months. In the years that followed, he and his team implemented a change in culture, orchestrating a dramatic turnaround and restoring the company’s position in the industry. His first book, Transfluence: How To Lead With Transformative Influence In Today’s Climates of Change, was released in September 2020. He works with several nonprofits, serves on the board of directors of Host Hotels and Resorts, Iron Mountain Inc., and Ventas Inc., and is on the board of trustees of The Pennsylvania State University. He earned an undergraduate degree from Penn State University and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

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