Thursday, January 1, 2009

Leaders with Healthy Humor

During the Martial Law period, when there was already pervasive talk of cronyism and the plunder of the country’s coffers, many Filipinos heard and passed on the story that the Archbishop of Manila found himself seated between the President and the First Lady in a State function. The First Lady noticed the Archbishop’s discomfort, and asked him, “Are you feeling well, Your Eminence?” He replied, “Madam, I feel like Christ on the cross between the two thieves.” There was an uneasy pause before the President grinned at the Archbishop and said, “Well then, my place on your right makes me the good thief.”

In periods of crisis, we can expect the making and sharing of jokes and humorous stories to serve as ways for us to cope, survive, or experience immediate relief from fear and stress. The year 2009 is projected to be stressful owing to massive job losses worldwide, lower OFW remittances, and lower family incomes in the wake of a global recession. Thus, more humor will be welcome, but can it provide more than momentary relief?

Humor as a Virtue

In our times, humor can be cultivated into a virtue in the exercise of leadership and management especially in connecting with others and strengthening fellowship in the workplace (The 7 Heavenly Virtues of Leadership). Current and future leaders and their teachers and coaches ought to consider the deliberate development of humor as a healthy and wise habit that humanizes leaders and followers.

“If I can get you to laugh with me, you like me better, which makes you more open to my ideas” (John Cleese). In the case of ex-President Estrada, his funny one-liners and jokes, especially about himself, helped promote and preserve his image as a likable rogue, but unfortunately for our people, he had no clear vision or ideas to offer after he cheered people’s hearts.

A 2005 study that examined the leadership style of three notable U.S. military leaders concludes: “the use of humor does help improve morale, help in the accomplishment of organizational goals, and relieve workplace stress” (Blane Anderson). Furthermore, the proper and effective use of humor can be learned especially if one has a good role model. With sufficient practice, one will be able to inject humor in a spontaneous manner during conversations, meetings, and presentations.

“Humor is not a mood but a way of looking at the world” (Ludwig Wittgenstein). Humor is a human way of knowing and acting in the world, and is an ability that separates the human from the brute. Aristotle considered human beings to be the only animals that have the capacity to laugh.

Holy Humor

For leaders interested in both the ethical and the spiritual, it is good to know that the comic and the ironic can be components of the sacred. Many “rites of passage” and seasonal rituals of tribal societies have playsome, ludic, and even comic aspects like “joking relationships, sacred games, such as the ball games of the ancient Maya and modern Cherokee [Americans], riddles, mock-ordeals, holy fooling and clowning, and Trickster tales” (Victor Turner).

In the Bible, the Gospel of John is a prime example of the use of irony to communicate the good news of divine grace and truth. For example, in John 8:21-22, Jesus talks with Jewish rulers and teachers who will conspire to have him executed by the Roman governor. When Christ tells them, “I am going away,” and “where I go, you cannot come,” then they ask one another, “will he kill himself?”

The irony of John the evangelist offers to readers the choice whether to laugh or to cry. The ironic twists of the gospel have a purpose to persuade us to adopt the standpoint of the evangelist and to rise above the blindness and folly of envious teachers and murderous rulers.

Another example of sacred comedy or tragicomedy is the Book of Job about an upright believer who suffers great affliction that is compounded by “wearisome comforters.” Against his objections, his visiting comforters foolishly persist in suggesting and concluding that his suffering is divine punishment for his unacknowledged sin that is hidden so deep, so secretly.

Comic Vision

Genuine comedy is not merely amusing, and its major point “is its perception of the incongruities of existence in which celebration and festivity occur side-by-side with evil and death.” Furthermore, “the comic vision does not necessarily eliminate evil and death; it is not incorrigibly and naively optimistic…In fact, many would argue that it is precisely because man has experienced suffering that he has a sharpened awareness of comic incongruity.” (William Whedbee) Do not talented actors and directors say that great comedy is more difficult than great drama to perform?

There is surely a tragicomic aspect to the day-to-day struggles of the urban and rural poor on our islands of smiles, laughter, and tears where wakes can last weeks, spill into the streets, and become gambling dens to cover funeral expenses. Thus, reform-minded leaders and aspiring leaders ought to develop and sharpen their tragicomic perspective especially by immersing themselves in the great majority’s sea of treats and troubles.

The comic and the ironic can bear holiness and relief from suffering. People of faith can clown around with wisdom. Humor, however, can also be malicious, cruel, or hurtful. A local proverb goes: “Sa biro at biro’y may birong kakatwa, na ang binibiro’y siyang matutuwa; datapuwa’t may birong matindi sa taga, at may biro namang maantak sa iwa”: among different kinds of jokes, some amuse their targets, but some hurt more than stab wounds.

Hurtful Humor

There are forms of humor that ethical leaders and responsible persons should oppose especially the “laughter from above downwards…of laughing at those who in any case are weak and socially stigmatized.” Whenever an expression of humor is dehumanizing or irresponsible, true leaders have “an ethical commitment to refuse to laugh” (K.J. Kuschel). It might even be necessary for them to penalize perpetrators of cruel humor.

Hurtful humor is expressed whenever, for example, macho men laugh at the feelings and ideas of women and gay persons, one ethnic group scoffs at the looks of another, the able-bodied mocks the disabled, the lowlander ridicules the highlander, or the elite private school graduate makes fun of the public school graduate.

Some of our entertainers and so-called comedy shows make use of those considered “ugly” (short, fat, or dark-skinned persons with physical or speech disability) in order to elicit laughter from their audience. A leader who knows authentic comedy perceives the presence of hurtful humor, and helps others to recognize the harm it causes.

Inappropriate and hurtful humor “can hinder rather than help a situation, distracting attention, pulling focus and slowing down a process” (Colin Benjamin). Too much humor is undesirable even in electoral campaign speeches. “Bisan pa ang kadlaw, kon tam-a makapahibi” (Hiligaynon): even laughter, when too much, makes one cry.

Leaders who want to practice humor as a helpful habit should bear this in mind: “The best humor comes from truth. When humor is used as a means to obfuscate facts or derail an intended course, it is coming from a place of negativity and falsehood.” (Colin Benjamin)

Helpful Humor

Truth-based humor and data-driven irony can be forms of resistance to an unjust status quo. The biting humor and stinging irony we need these days ought to creatively ridicule possessiveness, egotism, and authoritarianism. The humor fit for our times cannot be a carefree outlook; it entails a tragicomic perspective, which has been sharpened by pain or grief. It is humor that has matured and become wiser. It satirizes beyond bitterness, towards a discriminating sympathy.

It is unfortunate that too much of the political criticism and exchanges we hear and read in Philippine society these past few years contain bitterness that is neither ready nor willing to become sublime or to rise above itself. Also, few of our officials have the maturity to laugh at their own quirks and eccentricities.

Healthy humor is definitely not the singular solution to the complex plight of many Filipinos suffering from faulty systems, flawed laws, and flawed officials, yet it is a capability that can be developed in leaders committed to our emancipation from fear and despair. “Without humor, there is scant hope for peace, either for the individual or for humanity” (Raimon Panikkar).

Biting humor should become a toothy tool, a convenient, subtle, and “disarming” weapon of leaders working for social justice and well-being. The use of biting humor can be one way to “be shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16) in promoting ethical leadership and responsible citizenship and in pricking the consciences of all the social classes.

Among our endeavors in 2009, let us create and fling stinging humor at flawed organizations, institutions, and officials in order that the following will become increasingly undesirable for being ridiculous and laughable: graft and corruption, bureaucratic inefficiency, conspicuous consumption, wasteful luxury, and environmental malevolence.

Let us learn and teach how to develop humor as a wise habit in the exercise of ethical leadership and responsible citizenship. Let us deliberately include the creative and proper practice of humor in our communication strategy.

It is better to light a candle of humor than to curse the darkness. May we develop healthy humor, and discover the gift of a life of joy in the Spirit!

Sources Consulted:

Anderson, Blane. “Humor and Leadership.” Journal of Organizational Culture, Communications, and Conflict (Jan 2005).;col1

Benjamin, Colin. “Humour.” In The 7 Heavenly Virtues of Leadership, 113-36. Eds. C. Barker and R. Coy. Sydney, 2003.

Eugenio, Damiana. Philippine Folk Literature: The Proverbs. Quezon City, 2002.

Kuschel, K.J. Laughter: A Theological Essay. London, 1994.

Panikkar, Raimon. Cultural Disarmament: The Way to Peace. Louisville, 1995.

Turner, Victor. From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. New York, 1982.

Whedbee, William. The Comedy of Job. In On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible. Sheffield, 1990.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Culture and Value. Oxford, 1978.

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