"I'm not the strapping young Muslim socialist that I used to be." -- Barack Obama
"One of my favorite quotations about age comes from Thomas Jefferson. He said that we should never judge a president by his age, only by his work. And ever since he told me that..." -- Ronald Reagan
Since 1920, the press corps, celebrities and politicians have gathered together annually for the White House Correspondents Dinner (WHCD). It's my favorite political event of the year because it's not only entertaining, it allows us to see the president in an atypical role -- as a comedian.
Regardless of your political leanings, the WHCD is funny. This year's host was Conan O'Brien who targeted everyone from government representatives to celebrities to the news media. He had some great lines. One of my favorites was when he said that neither he nor his blacksmith believed that print media was dying. Very clever.
The president was also funny. And what I appreciated about his role at the WHCD is that you got to see a man who is typically a bit stiff and calculating let down his political hair and show us his comedic abilities. And Obama did a great job.
But not all presidents are created equal. Some are better humorists than others. Yet, regardless of their skills, it is still fun to see them outside of their formal world-leader role, doing a little schtick.
When I saw George Bush parody himself with a George Bush impersonator, it didn't matter that the lines weren't delivered with perfect timing. It was just funny. When I saw Bill Clinton doing laundry in his post-presidency video, I almost blew campaign donations out my nose.
President Obama does have a good sense of comedic timing. So did Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy. Their punchlines flowed effortlessly and they knew when to let the audience laugh rather than moving on too quickly.
And while the WHCD is not your typical leader environment, I think it does demonstrate the power of humor in a leadership role.
Self-Deprecating Humor Instills Trust
As a humorist, I was once criticized for using self-deprecating humor in a leadership role. But the person criticizing me was not a very good leader, while I was. The ability to laugh at ourselves, especially at our mistakes, suggests that as leaders, we're not so different from everyone else. Those who we are leading can identify with this and will relate to us much better than if we are never able to admit our mistakes and we lead with a self-protective sense of seriousness.
Humor Helps Leaders Keep a Balanced Perspective
On any given day, a leader can get caught up in any number of stressful situations which can take a psychological and physical toll. Humor, however, helps a leader to see their world with a balanced perspective. When a leader is balanced, the followers feel more secure.
Humor Is Intelligent
Most humor is based on seeing the irony, juxtapositions, and smart connections in our environment. When a leader uses humor (except, perhaps, in the case of a whoopee cushion), we can appreciate the cognitive processes that led to the laughter as well as the intelligence that created it.
Humor Is Just Fun
I don't know about you, but I'm more inclined to follow a leader who is both good at his/her job and fun. There are certainly situations when we all need to be serious about our life or work, but I think we often miss opportunities to have more fun. If a leader is willing to do that, it makes for a better environment for all of us.
The president's humor at the White House Correspondents Dinner allowed us to see him as a fellow human being who sees the humor in life and can laugh at himself. And for that reason and the entertaining humor, I am grateful for this yearly event.