Ask not what your organization can do for you. Ask what comedy can do for your organization

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.

7 thoughts on “Ask not what your organization can do for you. Ask what comedy can do for your organization

  1. Which brings us to your recent blog regarding a third political party, and who that candidate might be. I’ll reserve comment on that issue, for that topic. I do have some ideas…

  2. I think anyone who runs for president seeks immortality, Joe. I also think we’ve seen a marked deterioration in the quality of individuals who seek the office. That’s been caused by a completely out-of-control media intent on uncovering the most salacious aspects of a candidate’s past. Neither Custer nor Kennedy would have dared enter the fray in 2012. Custer’s drinking and JFKs multiple affairs would have made both non-starters.

  3. Good question, which I have been pondering for a couple of days. I don’t think either one sought immortality, though they both sought fame and renown. Perhaps our hero-less era is a reflection of a society (men)unwilling to “put it all on the line”?

  4. I think JFK was a bit more of a statesman than Custer, but I would agree they shared the same recklessness. Kennedy ignored warnings about imminent danger in Dallas and Custer completely ignored the advice of his Indian scouts. Both died young, but gained immortality in the process. The only question is: was it worth it?

  5. I whole heartedly agree re: TR. Out camping in Yosemite, reading some Greek philosopher in the original. Which brings up another cowboy…George Armstrong Custer. I saw a documentary on him on PBS recently. The ride into the Little Bighorn remined me inexplicably of JFK, heading into the heart of Dallas, Texas. Reckless, bold, a charger. It just did. Joe

  6. Thanks Joe. I admit to being a huge fan of JFK’s (no matter what may have happened on the personal side). He was easily the best read and most intellectual president of the 20th century (along with TR, another personal favorite).

  7. Really great video of JFK, Steve. Still inspiring, and quite relevant even after 50 years. A tremendous loss to the country, but a truly heroic figure.