5 Rules For Joke-Telling Leaders

A sense of humor is an essential trait for leaders, but your sense of humor can quickly turn from an asset to a liability if you are careless. Like any form of communication, people will sometimes hear what they want to hear, not what you are actually saying, so humor is always a risk. As a follow-up to last week’s post on why humor is serious business for leaders, here are my five rules for leaders to keep in mind when it comes to humor.

(1) No Sarcasm
If raunchy jokes are the low-hanging rotten fruit of humor, then sarcasm is the razor blade: it has a sharp edge which makes it highly effective but damaging. Sarcasm is usually the truth wrapped up in a thinly disguised joke that stings. Sarcasm can be a telltale sign of an insecure person, and is only useful for building walls and hurting people, not helpful for building relationships. Many of us love sarcasm, but a sarcastic person is no fun to be around. Sarcasm is not becoming of a leader since, at its heart, it is a form of mockery, and leaders should not be mockers as a general rule. If sarcasm is your guilty pleasure, then it is a habit you must quit for your leadership health.

(2) No Victims
In response to my post last week about why humor is essential for leaders, one friend told me how Proverbs 26:18-19 guides how he thinks about using humor as a pastor:

Like a maniac shooting
flaming arrows of death
is one who deceives their neighbor
and says, “I was only joking!”

A lot of harm has been done by people who were “only joking.” Playful kidding is okay, but sometimes it can cross the line. If you are a leader or in any position of authority, even kidding can come off more harshly than you intended it. The fact is, there are probably only a small number of people whom you can tease safely. One day I overheard two faculty members talking on a day when the network had crashed on campus. One prof said to the other, “I’m probably the only one who can still teach around here today because I don’t depend on all the technology.” His counterpart answered, “Well, the jury’s out as to whether what you’re doing actually qualifies as teaching.” As peers, they can joke like that, but as a leader, it is rare that you can tease someone like that. Why? Because you are NOT their peer. An executive official once told me how someone accused him of yelling in a meeting. He said, “I was so confused because I never even raised my voice, but then I realized it was because of my position. Even when I speak quietly, my position makes my voice seem louder.” Your position as a leader gives you a louder voice, and can give your teasing a sharper edge, as well.

My rule of thumb is always to make sure that the punch line either has no victim or that I am my own victim. When I think of times when I have gotten into trouble with humor as a pastor it is usually either someone misinterpreting a joke (probably not my fault), or when I’ve broken the rule of victimless humor – even if I just intended it as playful kidding (definitely my fault).

A note about leader’s families:
Bill Cosby once said, “We spoke to God about the children, and we were afraid to ask God for specific things. We thought that it might be too much. So we said to God ‘Please give us a healthy child’ and left it at that, not knowing that God is a generous God, but also has a sense of humor. And if you leave that much open for God, some wonderful jokes are going to come about.”

It is humiliating to anyone to be laughed at when you are being serious. Humor is dangerous in that way. There is nothing so degrading as telling someone about an idea you have and having them laugh at you. Something I’m working hard at with my kids, as a parent, is that I only laugh at them when they’re in on the joke, and never laughing at them when they’re the punch line. I tell a lot of stories about my kids, and I try really hard to make sure that the only funny stories I tell about my kids are ones where they are in on the joke, and not ones where I’m laughing at them. In addition, it is my rule that before I ever share a story about my family in public, I always ask their permission first.

Make sure that when you tell humorous stories about your family that they are in on the joke, not victims of it.

(3) No Problem with Self-Deprecating Humor
As a leader, it is disarming when you poke fun at yourself. It shows you don’t take yourself too seriously. However, this can be a defense mechanism, or a way of making fun of yourself for something before someone else has the chance. When you poke fun at yourself, is it a sore area (weight, hair loss, or some other physical attribute)? If so, others might pick up on it and perceive it (valid or not) as insecurity.

(4) No Retelling Someone Else’s Self-Deprecating Humor:
Just because someone makes a joke about him or her self, it doesn’t mean you can make that joke. When you recycle someone else’s self-deprecating humor, you break rule #2 (no victims), and it’s just bad form on the whole. A lot of public speakers will say, “Obviously I’m not starving – just look at me!” and it usually gets a polite chuckle, but if someone else said, “Obviously you’re not starving – just look at you!” it has a very different tone.

(5) No Missing The Comedy of Everyday Life
My friend Dan at the college where I work is seriously one of the funniest people I know. In a very serious conversation he will often derail us with his jokes, but I can never remember him being mean. At all. Ever. He just has an incredible (and I mean incredible) knack for seeing the humor in everyday stuff. Even if you are not in a laughing mood, he can get you laughing just by pointing out absurdities all around us.

The takeaway:
Humor is always up to interpretation, so there will always be people who do not understand your sense of humor, or think you’re saying something you are not. You can’t worry about all of that, because it is your duty as a leader to understand that just because you’re laughing doesn’t mean everyone else is. C.S. Lewis said, joy is the serious business of heaven, and I believe one of the closest things to hell on earth is a humorless leader, one who can’t take a joke, or one who uses humor as a weapon.

Keep it safe.
Keep it clean.
Keep it friendly.
Keep it light.
No sharp edges.

© Steve Dunmire 2014

Dr. Steve Dunmire is an ordained pastor, a commissioned ministry coach, and Director of the Office of Ministry Resources at Houghton College (Houghton, NY). He is also the director and an instructor of Houghton’s “Equipping for Ministry” program offering non-degree courses for ordination & personal enrichment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s