Today is the 95th anniversary of the birth of President John F. Kennedy. And, love him or hate him, no one can deny he had IT. So did Abraham Lincoln, both Roosevelts and Ronald Reagan as well. IT isn't charisma, although all five presidents certainly possessed an abundance of that magical quality.
In this case, it refers to a razor sharp sense of humor— a sense of humor and master of comedy that each president used time and again to either emphasize a point, build audience rapport or, critically, diffuse a tense situation.
Reagan was a textbook example of a leader who instinctively knew when to use comedy to disarm an opponent. After taking a drubbing in his first debate with Democratic presidential nominee, Walter Mondale, critics suggested the 74-year-old Reagan was too old for the job. But, when the question was raised in the second debate, Reagan didn't skip a beat. "I refuse to allow age to become an issue in this campaign," he snapped. Then, pausing and smiling, he glanced at Mondale and said, "I don't agree with critics who say my opponent lacks the experience to lead." The audience burst out in laughter (as did Mondale) and, by using comedy, Reagan had turned a negative into a positive.
Reagan also used comedy on the worst day of his life. After being shot and very nearly killed by a would-be assassin, a semi-conscious Reagan lifted himself off the operating table, removed his oxygen mask and asked the surgeon, "Are you a Republican?" The medical staff burst into laughter, an extremely tense situation was diffused and the surgeon later said he felt far more relaxed and focused.
That's the power of comedy. And no modern President, not even Reagan, used it to greater effect than JFK during his televised press conferences. Here are just a few snippets:
My favorite JFK retort to a press question is when he was asked if, having settled into The White House, he was enjoying his job and if he'd recommend it to others. Kennedy paused, looked down and then smiled broadly. He said: "The answer to your first question is yes, I'm enjoying it immensely. As for the follow-up, the answer is no, I wouldn't recommend it others; at least not for another four years." Brilliant, no?
Too few leaders possess the self-confidence or vulnerability to laugh at themselves, especially in times of crisis. One need only look at such examples as Pope Benedict XVI, Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs and Carol Bartz, one of many CEOs to have been unceremoniously booted out of the horror show otherwise known as Yahoo.
Comedy can define a leader and it can cure a toxic culture. But, it has to be authentic in order to succeed. Great presidents, great executives, great athletes and great entertainers understand that. Sadly, though, they're the exception. But, you can be a change agent. You can suggest that your organization's leadership embrace comedy as a competitive advantage. And you, and your company can reap the benefits.
And, so my fellow Americans, ask not what your organization can do for you, ask what comedy can do for your organization.