The authentic CEO is an oxymoron

My friend, and erstwhile colleague, Valerie Di Maria, recently opined on the attributes necessary for a chief executive officer to truly be authentic.

Valerie's list includes the obvious:

– Admitting mistakes
– Emotional intelligence (which I'm pretty sure I've lacked since the age of 16)
– Courage
– A willingness to engage in unscripted give-and-take.


Unfortunately, she missed the most important attribute: telling the truth.

And, that's why I believe EVERY CEO OF EVERY FORTUNE 500 corporation should be trained in stand-up comedy. That's not a typo, and it's not a joke.

We've been training senior executives at major companies for the past few years as part of our Comedy Experience. We partner with a professional comedian, Clayton Fletcher (, to lead sessions that have nothing to do with joke-telling and everything to do with showing vulnerability, story-telling and, yes, telling the truth.

Clayton will tell you the very best comedians rely on truth to create their bits. And, that's what we insist upon in our training. After explaining the four different types of comedy, we demonstrate how we use a true, personal event to frame a two to three-minute routine.

The subsequent results are nothing short of amazing. By baring their souls in front of their peers and direct reports, senior executives immediately possess ALL of the subtle value-adds Val talks about in her authentic executive list:

– They become more likable
– They become more approachable
– They not only admit mistakes, they embrace them

And, here's the big one. Drum roll please:

– By allowing everyone else to laugh with them when they stutter or forget a line, authentic CEOs make the tension disappear and the humanity reappear. They also provide the glue necessary for a senior team to become a more tight-knit, all for one and one for all, unit.

I think most CEOs and CCOs will look at Valerie's list, shrug their shoulders and think to themselves, “We already do that.” As a result, they won't change.

I think many will also ignore stand-up comedy as a means to becoming a more authentic executive. Why? Not because the CEO or CCO doesn't think it'll work. On the contrary, it makes perfect sense. Rather, performing stand-up comedy requires one to show vulnerability, and to most CEOs, that's anathema.

Sadly, the authentic CEO remains more of an oxymoron than an aspiration. But, while I have your attention, have you heard the one about the CEO, CFO and CCO who walked into a bar?

2 thoughts on “The authentic CEO is an oxymoron

  1. There’s no question that a happy culture, in turn, breeds a happy sales and marketing team. Our Comedy Experience is less about training executives how to be funny and more about how to listen better, build rapport and know when, and where, to use humor to turn a negative (or worse, a passive) audience into a positive one. I guarantee your ‘jokes’ were funny; you just didn’t accurately read the non-verbal clues of your audience in advance.

  2. Steve, I’ve very much enjoyed my few sojourns onto the comedy stage; with folks clapping and showing their appreciation after the shows, telling me, “You’re Great,” and “How can we hear more..” Whereas in PR bosses look at my work and say things like, “Yeah, that’s funny.”
    You hit a HUGE issue, business measurement comes down to a couple big buckets; is a business healthy and is it happy?
    Executives devote a tremendous amount of attention and resources to the healthy part; utilization, financials, revenue models, share price, etc… Happy? Another story and much more difficult for executives and staff to wrap their heads around. For my money the untapped gold mines within organizations are in the happy fields, not the healthy ones. Health is important however, we devote far too many resources to this part with very little chance of huge returns.
    Every wonder why a seven-man SEAL fire team can implement national policy half a world away from executive management supervision and yet a 40 person sales department at head office can’t produce an accurate quarterly report on time? Simple, one are a team and the other is a collection of individuals – and no amount of spreadsheeting is going to change that – only team building can.