THE BLOG
10/08/2014 02:19 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2014

Are You a Leader Who Laughs?

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The first day I walked into Miss Amos's literature class, I was scared. Not because of the subject or the fact that this was my first day in a new school -- but frightened by her face.

I took my seat and slid around to look at her squarely. Her nose was, well, huge, and curved sharply toward the left cheekbone. Big dark bags hung under piercing dark eyes. Her cheeks sunk in and then exploded into an oddly shaped, over-sized mouth. Her silver hair was parted perfectly straight and combed flat -- down to her ears, then was held in place by a tight row of pin curls around the edges. Below her neck, everything else seemed normal in her smartly tailored dress.

She turned to the board behind her and wrote silently in big bold print: MISS AMOS. Turning to face us again, she said dryly, "You'll notice there's no period after the Miss. That makes it all too final. I'm still hoping."

The class laughed uneasily, and that began my junior year with Miss Amos.

By October, her huge bulletin board bulged with mums and green ribbons, each sprouting a football player's glittering number. Two days before the homecoming game, the bulletin board had mums three rows deep inside the flowered frame. Her explanation? Former students sent them "just because."

Later that year, a student sauntered into class late, mumbling apologies about oversleeping. Miss Amos harrumphed, with her dry wit: "Chris, if you're sleeping more than three hours a night, you're sleeping your life away. At age 18 do you know how much of your life you've already missed?" Chris slid into his seat sheepishly. But as she surveyed the room with her sardonic smile, the comment was not lost on the rest of us. (Nor, apparently, was it lost on Chris, for that matter. He's now our state senator.)

Miss Amos taught us to research, to speak, to write, to think, and to persuade. I'm still drawing from the well she dug in my life -- mostly through the use of homespun humor wrapped around a heart of love.

By May, I hardly noticed her face anymore. I'm guessing most other students forgot about it also. Miss Amos has a school named after her now.

Humor hides a multitude of unattractive physical features, petty habits, and personality quirks that might otherwise irritate people. With the pressures of leadership, you have a choice -- to get upset or to get a laugh. Getting upset boosts your blood pressure; laughing and a lighthearted culture can boost your productivity and your influence.

So if you want to expand your communication style as a leader by adding more laughter, consider these tips:
  • Look for the positive in negative situations.
  • Respond in a lighthearted rather than heavy-handed way to tension in relationships.
  • Take a lighthearted approach to brainstorming and problem-solving in meetings. Allow time for a chuckle.
  • Consider your word choices carefully in sensitive situations. Use the tactful, positive, or neutral word rather than the potentially offensive or negative phrasing.
  • Learn how to tell a good story or anecdote to illustrate your points -- even in formal business presentations or business meetings.
  • Add lighthearted background music to your special events.
  • Learn to laugh at yourself. Understand that your reputation, respect, ego, career, or future is not on the line with every mistake, decision, circumstance, or situation that develops.
  • Practice a little self-deprecating humor in front of others -- admit a few mistakes, errors in judgment, or wrong decisions by telling funny stories on yourself. You'll likely see that others' opinions of you rise rather than fall. Their admiration and appreciation will likely grow because of your willingness to be vulnerable.
  • Give others permission to laugh at your mistakes without malice. When someone cracks a joke or delivers a one-liner at your expense, rather than be defensive, enjoy the humor yourself. Others take their cue from you. Assume no ill will on their part until you have proof that they actually meant to embarrass you. (When that's the case, you'll want to talk with them privately about the underlying cause.)
  • Remember to test your own motives in humor toward others. Genuine humor leaves no sting. Never disguise a "message" to someone in a humorous barb. Humor should strengthen and heal, not weaken and hurt, relationships.

To paraphrase an old German Proverb: "A person shows their character by what they find funny --or not." Laughter engages, connects, and expands your influence as a leader.