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Modern Leadership is a Joke

The world of comedy and comedians could offer a lot of learning to leadership and leaders. In comedy, if you are not a good comedian, guess what, nobody laughs, and you don’t get any gigs. Leadership works in the same way, but instead of a lack of laughter, the outcome is an uninspired and unmotivated team. If you’re not inspiring and motivating people, you’re not leading.

At the end of June 2022, I took a huge leap of faith and trained in comedy to perform a stand-up gig for charity. A huge leap of faith because I’m not very funny and I hate performing on stage. But somehow, somebody managed to convince me to do it (Kerry Leigh, an amazing comedy trainer and all-round great person). As it was for a charity I have supported for over 10 years, it made it even harder to say no.

The only way stand up was going to work for me, was if I could just be me. I didn’t want to create some character that I was uncomfortable being on stage. I wanted to be authentic. And I didn’t want to tell lies. I’m rubbish at telling lies. I only wanted to use material that was real. Stuff that had really happened to me. Cutting a very long and emotional story short, the event was a huge success. We raised lots of money for charity (Lagan’s Foundation). Everyone smashed it on the night, even me.

So, what does doing stand up have to do with leadership? A lot it turns out. Some I learned throughout the process and training. Other aspects have been on reflection.

Laughter and fun are great mediums to bring people together. We all want to go to work and feel good and engaged, and most of us enjoy a good laugh. An enjoyable and fun work environment is stimulating and leads to higher levels of motivation. You know from your own experience of going to a comedy gig, you’re literally on a high from laughing. Fun at work is a must for me and has been reinvigorated by the comedy training. Plus, people are more inclined to learn faster and not look for other jobs if they are enjoying working for you. Is your environment fun and enjoyable for your team?

All eyes are on you. There is no getting away from being the centre of attention when you do stand up. It’s just you, a mic and your material. An extremely vulnerable place to be, but weirdly empowering and enjoyable (if people are laughing). This is the same at work. Wherever you go, all eyes are on you. Every word you speak, your tone, your body language and your strange quirks. You are always on show. You have to get used to this and have the confidence to stand up in front of people and be yourself. Are you a confident leader?

People resonate with stories they can relate to. Storytelling is a great method for communicating in a way that people can relate to. We all love an observational comedian that tells a story that reminds us of who we are. They share in a way that brings the reality of a situation to life, and we get it, we understand the context and the points we need to laugh at. Leaders that use storytelling as a style to communicate (provided they are quick enough to the punchline) can have their team hanging on every word. By being real and speaking from the heart, your people lean in and appreciate your vulnerability. Have you considered storytelling and the use of analogies as a method of communicating with your team?

Stay tuned in to what’s current. We’ve all cringed when someone is telling jokes that are out of date and shared in a style that is 30 decades old. Anyone who puts on a croaky voice, pretending to hold a cigar in their hand and starts a joke with, “My mother-in-law”. You get the picture. Cringe. You have to do your research and understand what is landing well in the current climate and what is generating a laugh to know how to pitch comedy that works. Leaders need to understand their audience both inside and outside of the business to know what style of leadership is required. Old school style that may have worked 30 years ago, could be outdated. The only way you are going to find out is by creating feedback loops from both sides. Ask for feedback and make changes. Are you aware of the current cultural needs of your audiences?

Practice in a safe space with people who will provide honest feedback. When you are preparing your comedy material, the last thing you need is everyone nodding and yessing, knowing that you are going to die on your arse on the night. You need the honest feedback, so you can share what lands well and works, and just as importantly drop what doesn’t. To hone your skills as a leader you need people around you that will be honest with you. It’s also useful to gain a perspective from outside your business from a personal coach, peer group or close friends. Are you asking for and receiving honest feedback on your leadership style?

Know your audience. Not all comedy works for all people. You need to understand who is going to be in the room on the night and pitch your humour at the right level. Over time, as you build your reputation and hone your skills you build your own audience that ‘get it’. You can push it more when you find your people, but you are never going to make everyone laugh. As a leader, you need to understand your team and work to inspire and motivate them, but as with the comedy, some people are not your people and won’t ‘get it’. Do you have the right people in your own team who get it?

Vulnerability is a superpower. The more you share about yourself and the more vulnerable you are, the more people lean in. The raw reality of our lives is what resonates. The embarrassing moments. The mistakes we’ve made. The times we sailed closed to the edge. The heartache. People love it. It’s what makes us human. Great comedians are brilliant at this. They share who they really are and put it out there for all the world to see. Great leaders are vulnerable too. They say, “I don’t know”, “I’m struggling” and they share with us who they really are. They don’t wear a mask for work. How vulnerable are you with your team?


This article has been written by Founder and Managing Director of the Manufacturers Alliance, Gary Sheader. Gary has supported a wide range of leaders in developing high-performing teams throughout the UK and Europe. He has built a team around him with a core strength in strategic facilitation and winning the hearts and minds of people. Get in touch if you would like to discuss transforming your team.

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