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Dave Hill, The Re-Engineered Engineer. Speaker, Trainer, Author, and Speech Coach

Dave Hill, The Re-Engineered Engineer. Speaker, Trainer, Author, and Speech Coach

Leading with humor

  • Make use of levity to get your point across
  • A leader’s humorous remarks can diffuse tension

According to a Robert Half International survey, 91% of executives agree that a sense of humor is important for career advancement; 84% believed that people with a good sense of humor do a better job.

A Bell Leadership study revealed that the two most desirable traits in a leader were a strong work ethic and a healthy sense of humor.

Successful communication in the business world includes delivering information in a format that will convince people to agree and take action. Creating a tone in the room to enhance candor, participation, and collaboration can drive success.  The following are two examples of leaders capitalizing on the use of levity.

1) A friend was travelling to the corporate office to convince senior executives to spend $20+ million on equipment upgrades.  When I met him the evening after his presentation he was glowing with success.  His presentation went extremely well and he was successful in gaining consensus.

My friend confessed that about 15 minutes before his presentation, he became very nervous.  He only relaxed when one of the executives started the conversation with some witty, humorous remarks – a great example of leading by setting a relaxed tone that facilitated open communication.

As a leader, wouldn’t you want your employees to feel that they can be candid and provide you with all the pro’s and con’s of a situation? Imagine if meeting participants are intimidated to the point that they give you the information that they feel you would like to hear rather than the possible negative outcomes.

2) Another example of incorporating humor was at a technical engineering meeting.  Highly technical and opinionated engineers had flown in from around the world to decide what research programs would be funded.   Nearly one million dollars was available for the research, although that would only be enough to fund a few of the projects.   After hearing presentations that outlined the benefits of each research program, the technical experts would be wheeling and dealing to make sure funding votes went toward programs that would benefit their needs.

Before the meeting started, the president of the research company had an unusual request of the 50 or so attendees:  Introduce yourself and tell what your first-ever job was.   Engineers chuckled about being dishwashers in restaurants, farm hands and landscapers.  There was laughter when someone pointed out a notable trend of the Irish in the group having worked in pubs before college. This simple icebreaker, which identified common ground and humble beginnings, set the stage for cordial dialogue during tough negotiations.


Think about the things that you can do to incorporate levity, relax the atmosphere, and encourage cordial interaction among the participants. Some options include:

  1. Turn up early for meetings to have casual conversations with others who arrive early.
  2. Incorporate icebreaker activities that are appropriate for your audience and the occasion.
  3. Start the meeting with an amusing story that relates to the content of the meeting and that the audience can relate to.
  4. Poke fun at yourself or a situation.