Return to Table of Contents

Lessons in Leadership

Laughter: A vital ingredient of leadership

“Laugh and the world laughs with you” is sage advice

By Robert L. Bailey

It’s a key to enjoying life and enjoying your job—and it’s a vital component of building a successful business.

Best of all, it involves a skill that we all have learned, just as we learned to walk, talk, ride a bicycle, drive a car or play golf or tennis. None of us could do any of these things when we were born, but now they may seem like second nature.

This skill, however, is more instinctive. Babies can do it when they’re only a few weeks old.

They can smile.

But something happens on our trip to maturity. As we develop skills that permit us to make a living, we become cynical and negative. We forget how to laugh and smile. We tend to get caught up in a spiral that pulls us downward. This negativity impairs our ability to deal with day-to-day problems that are a normal part of life. It adversely affects our chances for personal growth, expanded employment opportunities and business success.

How can we pull ourselves up from these negative thoughts and experiences?

Learn to laugh once again.

Funny things are happening all around us. Look for them. And laugh out loud.

When your kids get home from school, chances are you ask, “What did you learn today?” The answer is always the same: “Nothing.”

Instead ask, “Did anything funny happen at school today?” Kids have a way of seeing humor in almost anything. They laughed in the hallway between classes; they laughed in the classroom; they laughed on the way to school; and they laughed on the way home. Can they share with their parents some of the things they laughed about?

When you arrive home, you probably ask your spouse, “How did things go at work today?” Every day the answer is the same: “Okay, I guess,” spoken with the enthusiasm of someone who has just been sentenced to life imprisonment.

Instead, ask, “Did anything funny happen at work today?” Humor is there if you look for it.

During my travels I often ask taxicab drivers, some of the world’s most interesting people, “What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you as a cab driver?”

About 80% of the time the cabbie says, “Nothing funny ever happens to me.” But the other 20% tell me a funny story. Like the cab driver in Washington, D.C., who said his fare jumped out of the cab at a stoplight without paying. The driver chased the non-paying rider and caught him. When he got back to where he had left his cab, it had been stolen.

That probably wasn’t funny to the driver at the time, but it’s funny now. As a matter of fact, he delighted in telling the story and laughing about his experience.

My own experience with a taxi driver occurred when I was scheduled to give a speech in Boston. I arrived in the morning and, as is often the case in Boston, the traffic was horrific. “I have a flight at 7:00 a.m. tomorrow morning,” I said to the driver. “What time should I leave the hotel for the airport?”

The driver told me that traffic at that time of morning wouldn’t be heavy and gave me the time that I should plan to leave the hotel. “As a matter of fact,” he continued, “I’ll pick you up at the hotel at that time.”

I didn’t think he would follow through with his offer, but the next morning I checked out of the hotel, took advantage of a coffee urn in the lobby and poured myself a cup of coffee in a Styrofoam cup. As he had promised, there was my cab driver at the curb waving for my attention. “Sit in the front seat with me,” he suggested—since we were old friends at this point.

We started for the airport, came to a red light and he dashed through. After a few more blocks we encountered another red light, which he likewise whizzed through. “Did you know you’ve run two red lights?” I asked my driver. “Yes, I know,” he answered. “I didn’t want to stop and make you spill your coffee.”

Finding the laughable

Newspapers and the Internet are great sources of funny stories. There are tales of nude park rangers and airline pilots, and the guy who robbed a bank because he told police he was too ugly to get a job. And you think you’ve got problems.

Here are more laugh-provoking stories:

• After a holdup, bank robbers jumped into a sheriff’s car, thinking it was their getaway car.

• Three guys went streaking through a restaurant. When they got outside where their car was to have been waiting with the engine running, someone had stolen it. Police arrested the three men in the parking lot minutes later. They were wearing only shoes and hats—in 20-degree weather.

• A woman hit an alligator with her car. She loaded it into the back seat to take it to a vet for medical attention. The alligator apparently didn’t like the idea of going to a doctor. It started to thrash around, causing the woman to lose control and wreck her car. The woman was ticketed for unlawfully transporting an alligator. Perhaps you, like I, didn’t know it was illegal to transport an alligator in the back seat of a car—an added piece of valuable advice you are getting by reading this column.

• A man in Tampa, Florida, robbed a bank and left his résumé. Actually he dropped it, along with his photo, when the bank dye packet exploded.

Laughter as a weapon and a healer

Humor disarms critics. When Ronald Reagan was running for president, his age became an issue. Was he too old to be president? During the presidential debates, the matter of age did indeed arise. His answer: “I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Never again did age emerge as an issue during that campaign.

Laughter heals. Laughter produces endorphins that some experts believe may cure diseases. There is scientific documentation that even cancer can be cured with laughter. Stanford University researchers have found that humor activates the same portion of the brain that is stimulated by acquiring a huge sum of money or by a dose of cocaine. They call it the brain’s “reward center.”

If laughter could cure cancer, just think of its positive effect on the common cold, or a common problem, or a common bad attitude.

Laughter in the workplace

Productivity in the workplace is always higher when people have fun. Almost any mission becomes more successful when people have fun. Several years ago I chaired the Operation Feed campaign in my home county, a program to gather food supplies for several food pantries. The corporations that showered food drives with tear-jerking examples of people who desperately needed help were nearly always less effective than the drives built around fun activities. Maybe that’s not the way it should be, but that’s the way it is.

When people have fun together, morale is higher, productivity is higher, and personnel problems are fewer. People are more likely to pull together as a team when they’re facing a big challenge.

That’s true for a family unit, too. Laughter can break the monotony of the ho-hum get up, go to work, work, go home, go to bed, get up and go to work cycle in which many of us find ourselves. Laugh together and life will be much more interesting.

Homemaker-humorist Erma Bombeck once said, “If we can laugh at it, we can live with it.”

Start laughing today. It’s worth it, I promise.

The author
Robert L. Bailey is the retired CEO, president and chairman of the State Auto Insurance Companies, a public speaker and author of two new books, The New Leader and What To Do When You’re Havaing a Bad Day. Visit or contact him at (941) 358-5260 or


Productivity in the workplace
is always higher when people
have fun.














Return to Table of Contents