Chief Executive Officer
Where There's Humor, There's Hope
Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.
A time to be born, a time to die,
A time to plant, a time to reap…
A time to laugh, a time to weep
- Turn! Turn! Turn! Written by Pete Seeger
I was a new CEO, making one of my first live TV appearances. Somewhat nervous and wanting to gather my thoughts, I grabbed an espresso-to-go and took a walk down Wall Street before heading to the studio. Mentally rehearsing my message points, I strolled through the old cemetery at the historic Trinity Church—perhaps hoping for a little inspiration from above. Instead, I got something else from on high.
A pigeon flew over and dropped a “gift”—all over my head. Stunned, I stood there in my best pinstriped suit, knowing I was going to be on air in 30 minutes.
When I got to the green room at the TV studio, the makeup artist gave me a strange look.
“You won’t believe what happened,” I told her and started to explain.
“You’ve got bigger issues than pigeon poop,” she said in her heavy New York accent. “Those bags under your eyes have gotta go.” Opening a drawer, she took out a tube of Preparation H, of all things, and rubbed it under my eyes to reduce the swelling.
It was all so absurd, I just started to crack up. And just like that, my nervousness was gone. Humor steadied me in the moment.
More than ever these days—with so much pressure on people, and so many suffering losses—we all need a time to laugh. I know that sounds completely contrarian. And it certainly doesn’t mean that we should ever make light of the crisis and hardships shouldered by others. But even in the depths of sorrow, laughter truly is good for the soul.
Earlier in my career, if someone had asked me to describe a great leader, I probably would have said someone with vision, confidence, courage, strategic thinking, a growth mindset. But a sense of humor—not so much. Except humor can be a potent leadership tool when wielded with emotional intelligence—empathy, to know what the other person is going through; authenticity, to see ourselves and others clearly; and humility, to be able to laugh at ourselves.
A few years ago, two colleagues were locked in a very tense situation. I asked them both to fly to Los Angeles so we could hash out the issues. Seeing them on the opposite sides of the conference table, I felt like we were hammering out a peace treaty after some prolonged war. “Welcome to détente,” I said, off-the-cuff. One of them smiled and the other snickered—then we all burst out laughing. It was enough to change the narrative. They weren’t really adversaries; they were actually two colleagues passionately engaged in constructive conflict. By taking the personal out of it, they sparked collective genius. Instead of a battle, we got a brainstorm.
Post-pandemic, we all will need to lead differently and in a way that is “radically human”—with greater self-awareness and genuine connection with others. Imagine this as the aspiration for every organization: everyone united behind a bold purpose. But if people can’t move past how things used to be, to how they need to be, that won’t happen. They need the right mindset.
Humor, when used at the right time and in the right doses, can humanize leaders—making them far more relatable. Granted, it may not be for everyone—some people just aren’t naturally funny. But when we look around and find a reason to laugh, it’s like the air is suddenly different in the room. The mood is elevated, people feel energized. We see that life is bigger than whatever we’re going through in the moment. Here are some thoughts:
· The pressure release. At Korn Ferry, we know what great leadership looks like—and we have nearly 70 million assessments to back it up. We test leaders constantly for traits such as emotional intelligence, self-awareness, resilience, connecting with and influencing others, and managing conflict. Admittedly, we do not test for a sense of humor. But it does come up in some surprising ways, as Stu Crandell, the global leader of our firm’s CEO and Executive Assessment practice, told me this week. “When I question executives about how they create team resilience and optimism in tense high-pressure situations or conflict, often the answer includes humor. So, while it’s not the question, it may very well be the answer.” Humor is a legitimate leadership tool, and it takes a lot of intelligence (emotional and intellectual) to use it well. It can become the release valve that lightens despair and disarms conflict.
· “No funeral without laughter, no wedding without tears.” An executive reached out to me the other day with a story about his mother, who in her late 90s contracted a serious infection that required hospitalization. As her condition worsened, the doctor gave the sad prognosis that she wasn’t going to make it. The time had come for the family to arrange hospice for her. Thinking that his mother was sleeping, the executive quietly approached the hospital bed and called out gently to her. Suddenly, this woman who had seemed near death a few minutes before, snapped her eyes open and replied in a heavy Italian accent, “I heard what you and the doctor were talking about. I am not going anywhere. I have five kids to take care of.” No matter that those five kids were all adults with families of their own. Two weeks later, she was well enough to be discharged from hospice—and lived another two years—nearly reaching 100 years of age. This story is a reminder that even at our saddest, there may be a reason to smile—we just may have to look closer to find it.
· Laugh together, stay together. It’s not just good to laugh—it’s also good for us, individually and collectively, as we experience a sense of well-being and belonging. As leadership guru Daniel Goleman, who writes extensively on emotional intelligence (including for our Korn Ferry Institute), observed: “A leader’s emotional self-awareness, positive outlook, and teamwork play crucial roles in unleashing humor and fun at work…. Teams that laugh together benefit from increased engagement, commitment, and productivity.” It’s the secret to sustainable success: when we’re happy, we’re motivated, and when we’re motivated, we’ll outperform.
· What are you laughing at? It’s a great question for self-reflection. Hamaria Crockett, one of our firm’s career coaches in our Korn Ferry Advance business, told me the other day that she often asks people: “What is something that has made you laugh?” It always catches people off guard. After all, Hamaria is speaking with people at their most vulnerable moments—furloughed, fired, and fizzled out without any discernible trajectory, as well as fast-tracking and navigating their way forward. A small shift and suddenly they’re laughing. It’s like taking a deep breath—instant perspective. Hamaria shared one of her favorite sayings with me: “Laughter is like a windshield wiper. It doesn’t stop the rain, but it allows you to keep going.”
For family and friends, colleagues and clients, adding a dose of levity and authenticity can alleviate even the heaviest of downpours. We become relatable. We become more human. We don’t build walls of words; we help people climb over to reach us. Indeed, where there’s humor, there’s humanity.