Don’t take yourself, or others, so seriously that you cannot abandon yourself laughter or keep in high esteem those who do. Take Lincoln, for example:
“…not only throughout his life but on out into his posthumous fame and glory his penetrating mental activity would be obscured by his reputation as a teller of jokes, by the greater thread of humor that ran through his life and being. One can’t tell jokes and stories like those, and collapse in convulsions of laughter, and have humor as an essential constant part of one’s being, if one is an intellectually serious person” (5).
– William Lee Miller, Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2003), 5.
Do you normally think of humor as an important quality for a leader to have? Before I read Al Mohler’s The Conviction to Lead: 25 Principles for Leadership That Matters (Bethany House, 2012), I didn’t. I thought of humor as something that might add to the character appeal or charisma of a leader, but not really as important, or even a virtue.
But consider what Dr. Mohler has to say about the way that humor can be used to serve and, by showing humility, build respect among those you serve as a leader:
“We are not called to be comedians or humorists, but the effective leader knows that generous, self-deprecating humor is a gift that leaders can give to the people they serve.
“Humor humanizes and warms the heart. Those who follow you know that you have weaknesses and foibles, so let them share in the humor you direct at yourself. Humor should never be used at another’s expense, but it can be used to make people feel at ease, to relieve tension, and even to affirm humanity. Humor must never be crude or disrespectful, but it can build respect.
“… Leaders know how to laugh with their team, with their people, with the public, and at themselves. Humor is a public admission that leaders are completely human, and that, in itself, is a virtue” (155-156).
NOTE: In this book, Dr. Mohler (President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) has some wonderful things to say about many topics, including reading and the use of social media for leaders. Stay tuned for posts on these!
In showing us Lincoln at his lowest – in the darkest fits of gloom and depression – and at his best – telling humorous stories to guests, comforting others who are suffering, and achieving great political triumphs – Joshua Wolf Shenk gives us the picture of an integrated life.
He shows us that suffering, even in the form of mental illness, which Lincoln had, need not be the whole story. Indeed, it can be a crucial part of one’s personal growth and maturity into greatness. Lincoln never wished for affliction and surely he must have wished depression away many times during his life. But with the help of others as well as several coping mechanisms, such as reading poetry or telling jokes, he harnessed the monster of depression in a way that strengthened his character, his endurance, and allowed him to rise to the great historical challenges that confronted his presidency. I like how Shenk puts it in some of the last lines of Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (Mariner, 2006):
“The overarching lesson of Lincoln’s life is one of wholeness. Knowing that confidence, clarity, and joy are possible in life, it is easy to be impatient with fear, doubt, and sadness. If one desires to ‘stir up the world,’ it is easy to be impatient with work for the sake of work. Yet no story’s end can forsake its beginning and its middle. Perhaps in the inspiration of Lincoln’s end we can receive some fortitude and instruction about all that it took for him to get there…The hope is not that suffering will go away, for with Lincoln it did not ever go away. The hope is that suffering, plainly acknowledged and endured, can fit us for the surprising challenges that await” (215-216). (Emphasis mine.)