Izzy Gesell

Izzy Gesell

Talks about Humor at Work

By Monica Nakamine
August 13, 2001

Good leadership is often determined by how you lead, but it could also be judged by how you laugh, according to Izzy Gesell, professional humorist, corporate motivator and creativity coach. Gesell spoke to SDMers during this year’s on-campus Summer Business Trip, which was held during the week of July 9, 2001.

"Humor is a lot about vulnerability," said Gesell. "As leaders, you have to take your fear with you because that’s what makes, but also expose your vulnerability because that’s what makes you human."

SDM students Gesell brought the house down, putting his money where his mouth is, telling jokes and using humor in his own presentation, which was one of many during this annual event. Gesell has spoken to other organizations, including NASA, Pepsi-Cola, HBO, Kaiser Permanente and AT&T, about how laughter is a way to become more mentally flexible, using jokes to exemplify how different perspectives are revealed.

"Jokes are essentially stories about a problem or conflict," said Gesell. "But the part that everyone wants to hear is the punchline. The bigger shift in the point of view, the bigger the laugh. That’s why puns get groans – because the punchline only provides a small shift in the point-of-view. The ability to hold multiple points-of-view is the key because there are more realities [than your own]. The more you practice [humor], the more facile you’ll be."

For example:

Girl: Mommy, when is Daddy coming home?
Mom: He’s at work late tonight. He has a lot of work to get done.
Girl: Why don’t they just put him in a slower group?

Gesell pointed out that both the mother’s and the girl’s realities are true, but from their own points-of-view. It demonstrated how a different reality is revealed, thus allowing yourself to understand and empathize more easily with people of different backgrounds, cultures, races, etc.

Gesell said, "Humor is always about truth. It may not be your truth, but it’s about some truth."

Many of the SDMers were pleasantly surprised by Gesell’s presentation. They went in with low or no expectations, but walked out with a smile on their face, not to mention a few insightful messages from Gesell.

"What I will take away [from Gesell’s presentation] is a much clearer understanding of how to get folks to laugh together in an appropriate way and how working at adding humor now can save much strife later on," said SDM student Russell Wertenberg from NASA. "Humor has a way of disarming others, especially during times of increased tension. Laughter ‘with’ others allows you to accommodate them during times of stress and poorly chosen words. You feel at ease in giving the other the benefit of the doubt because you know them at a different level. They are more real, they are more vulnerable."

"If you can admit that you’re less than perfect, you give up the sense that you’re stronger than others," Gesell said. "To feel in control, you must be able to give up the need to be in control. This is an important component of leadership."