4 Ways Leveraging the Power of Humor Can Help Leaders Navigate Inflection Points
Strategic inflection points can be a deadly serious business. After all, aren’t we all living in the mother of all strategic inflection points? A deadly pandemic, an economic crisis the depths of which few of us have experienced, a crisis of social justice and underlying it all, a looming and existential threat from a warming planet. None of this makes most of us feel particularly light-hearted. And yet, the best way to get your teams to think creatively in terms of overcoming these challenges may well be to turn toward a uniquely human attribute – the ability to look at threatening circumstances with a touch of humor.
Inflection points constitute those forces that exert a 10X pressure upon the taken for granted realities that surround our everyday lives. As they emerge, we begin to realize that the assumptions we’ve been making about our lives and work aren’t particularly useful in navigating our new reality. Some of us ignore these changes, digging in our heels (and sometimes our heads) in a denial of the new reality. Others seem to find ingenious ways of not only coping with the big changes but thriving in light of them.
The best way to get your teams to think creatively in terms of overcoming these challenges may well be to turn toward a uniquely human attribute – the ability to look at threatening circumstances with a touch of humor.
One little-heralded ingredient that separates the resilient, creative leadership of those who inspire, energize and motivate others to follow them, even if the direction is not entirely clear, is the ability to leverage humor, even in difficult circumstances. I was particularly struck by this in just now coming across Jennifer Lyn Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas’ brand new book Humor, Seriously: Why Humor is a Secret Weapon, in Business and in Life (2020, Currency Books). The science of humor is actually quite impressive – laughter releases endorphins, making us feel better. It enhances our creativity by unleashing feelings of belonging and psychological safety. It improves our bodies’ ability to cope with stress (really!). And it improves our satisfaction with our relationships. And yet, I don’t recall humor being recommended as helpful for entrepreneurial success, particularly when compared with coding wizardry or latching on to the Next Big Thing.
With that, and in the spirit of leveraging Aaker and Bagdonas’ great book, here are 4 examples of how leaders have used humor in light of strategic inflection points.
#1: Humor Heralds In the Direct to Consumer Inflection Point
Big brands are famous for taking themselves pretty seriously. Everyone is on message, every phrase and word has been picked over and massaged and correctness often triumphs originality when it comes to communications. Imagine the consternation when the sober purveyors of brands that accompany our daily lives are confronted with the humorous challenges – often of a new generation – that point out the absurdities of the offers we’ve been made.
Consider the on-line ad for Dollar Shave Club that makes light of mighty Gillette’s highly differentiated consumer offering: “Do you think your razor needs a vibrating handle, a flashlight, a back-scratcher and ten blades?…stop paying for shave tech you don’t need!”. It was funny, but also had the seeds of truth that got an entire generation of mostly-younger consumers asking themselves, “come to think of it, why AM I paying so much…?
One little-heralded ingredient that separates the resilient, creative leadership of those who inspire, energize and motivate others to follow them is the ability to leverage humor, even in difficult circumstances.
#2: New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern uses humor to be taken very seriously
Of the many world leaders confronting the challenges of restive populations fearfully fretting about the damage to their lives and livelihoods wreaked by the deadly advent of the novel coronavirus, the New Zealand Prime Minister has found ways of combining endearing humor with dead seriousness. But her use of humor to increase trust didn’t happen just in the crisis – long before extreme measures were necessary to combat COVID-19, Ardern was becoming somewhat famous for juxtaposing ordinary-person behavior (ordering Indian takeout! Potty-training an unwilling toddler! Leaving a restaurant that was too busy to seat her!) on her role as Prime Minister. When the time came for her to ask her population to take the difficult steps to control the spread of the coronavirus, the trust engendered by her willingness to be honest and vulnerable paid off. As of June, 2020, she went on television, “dancing for joy” at the disappearance of the virus from her country.
#3 Humor Runs Through Best Buy’s Unexpected Turnaround
When Hubert Joly took the reins at US retailer Best Buy in 2012, pundits had all but written the company off for dead. E-Commerce players like Amazon were using their low-cost operations to offer the same products at lower prices, ushering in a period of “showrooming.” Employees were demoralized after erratic management took cost-cutting steps such as cutting the employee discount. Joly’s strategy was not to replicate the shrink-shrink-shrink death spiral rivals such as Circuit City. But how to engage both employees and consumers? One vehicle was humor – in a popular ad featured at the 2013 Super Bowl, comedian Amy Poehler whips through a Best Buy store, asking rapid-fire questions of a helpful store employee. “What is the cloud? Are we in the cloud? Will this thing read me ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’?” “No,” says the salesperson. “Oh, will you?” she asks in a quizzical response. The triumphant final shot of the commercial is Poehler, striding out of the store laden with shopping bags, shouting (she has noise-cancelling headphones on) “thank you – you’ve been very helpful!” Joly’s humanity, and willingness to embrace the funny side of things helped the company navigate a very tricky inflection point – the coming future of retail in the light of digital shifts.
Joly’s humanity, and willingness to embrace the funny side of things helped the company navigate a very tricky inflection point.
#4 Kloeckner uses “F*** Up” nights to create a culture of learning and experimentation
An astonishing inflection point story from an unlikely origin, Germany’s Kloecker & Co SE has been hell-bent on a digital transformation, but with a very serious, human, dynamic. In addition to the deployment of technologies that were necessary to take a staid, traditional supply chain (including its use of Fax machines!) and turn it into a digital platform, the company used humor to bring traditionally-oriented employees on board and in effect, change the culture. Among the more playful features introduced across the firm were so-called “F up nights” in which employees were invited to tell stories – the funnier the better – about things they had tried that just hadn’t, well, worked out the way they had been hoping. In addition to sending the message that some failures are intelligent, the events also brought together the more traditionally oriented people in the firm with those working on the digital frontier.
I’m looking forward to joining SHIFT Business Webstival to talk about the serious – and the more lighthearted – aspects of navigating through the ‘mother of all inflection points’ that we are now facing. Join us!
Rita McGrath is a best-selling author, a sought-after speaker, and a longtime professor at Columbia Business School. Follow Rita on Twitter @rgmcgrath and view her channel on YouTube. For more information, visit RitaMcGrath.com. At SHIFT 2020 she will deliver the main keynote speech.