• June 2011

Leading with Humor: Lessons from 'The Cos'

By Robin McDougal
e-GLAM, Inc.

“I can do many things, but I cannot weave straw into laughter,” writes the doctor of comedy, Bill Cosby, in the introduction to his book of essays, “Cosbyology.”

Perhaps, but the man born in Germantown, PA, on July 12, 1937, has spent decades turning everyday observations into hilarious jokes that make us laugh at ourselves.

In fact, when asked about the importance of laughter, he once famously said, “You can turn painful situations around through laughter. If you can find humor in anything — even poverty — you can survive it.”

I consider that wisdom to be terrific leadership advice. Not only does laughter reduce the stress level in the workplace, it just feels downright fabulous to get a good laugh on. So for this month’s Leadership column, I share with you insights from Bill Cosby’s essays.

Cobsyology Rules

  • On eating, Cosby writes: “My mother and father ate oink. They loved it. Fatback. Salt pork. Oink. And I was born with lard on my head, in the cracks of my arms and the backs of my legs. So now my cholesterol is 741. So what? It doesn’t bother me. You eat what I eat, it’s supposed to be. Every once in a while my left arm will go numb. Okay. But if you shake it, it’ll go away.”
  • In a chapter on “How You Can Chip Your Teeth and Pull a Ligament,” he shares: “I would like to say something about plastic packaging and the sealing thereof. I realize that these things are sealed because people steal. I don’t like people who steal, but I am holding something in my hand, something that I purchased. This is mine, but it is sealed in this plastic. I am working my thumb around and I am popping the edges, and I’m hoping. But this plastic container does not give way. It is also eyeteeth proof. But wait! There is a lip. I’m pulling on it and it comes apart just enough so that I suddenly find my thumb stuck inside the package. And I’m bleeding — the thumbs, both thumbs — because obviously I wasn’t supposed to go in this way. Are there little razor blades inside? As I said, I don’t like people who steal. But there has to be a better way to keep people from stealing while, at the same time, letting the people who buy the stuff be able to get to it.”
  • Regarding marriage, Cosby calls his wife, “A Gift From God:” “When I talk about my wife, I want everyone to know that it is my general feeling that the relationship I have with my wife is not so great. Some people may feel it is very, very harsh what I’m saying. But I think that after you examine what I have said, you’ll find I’m not really saying negative things about my wife as much as I’m talking about myself and my relationship with myself and my wife. So I’d like to go on the record saying that all statements made pertaining to my wife are made out of love and with deep respect. Here’s why: I remember a dinner where the man who was sitting in between his wife and me told me he’d been married for 57 years. As so, I asked him a question. ‘Do you love her?’ He put his arm around her and very softly told me, ‘She’s a gift from God.’ I will always be thankful to that gentleman for saying that. He wasn’t even a songwriter.”

Embrace the Heart of Comedy

What I love about “Cosbyology,” and all of Bill Cosby’s work, really, is that it has so much heart. In every essay, joke, and episode of “The Cosby Show,” which ran from 1984-1992, there is a message that we can relate to — and quite often it makes us laugh so hard that it melts away the stress we are holding on to.

It also reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously.

Like Bill Cosby, I also came from humble beginnings. While not poor, I learned that if I wanted more from life I had to work for it. In addition to landing some terrific jobs, and getting several degrees, that drive gave me the courage to start my own company 10 years ago.

Like many of us starting new and emerging businesses, I had a wish list of supplies, materials, resources, or staff that I often could not afford. But I kept on trying, and that helped me be more innovative and kept my company growing.

It also stressed me out. But what I realized early on in the evolution of my firm was that when I relaxed and was calm, the creative solutions came. Not only is this approach effective — it is a lot more fun than being wound up and worried.

Take a Page from Bill Cosby’s Playbook

  • Discover the heart of humor. Humor can be a catalyst for creativity and innovation. Whether trying to unravel product problems, customer service dilemmas, or employee issues, you’ll find more success when you move out of your head and into your heart — and remember to keep it light.
  • Encourage your employees to laugh more. It just might help them be more creative and productive. The reason is simple. Research shows that there is a direct link between positive feelings and productivity. So, as a leader, be sure to encourage employees to try new things without fear of repercussions. The results will likely surprise and please you.
  • Use humor as a vehicle to spread your message. Studies have suggested that there is a high correlation between humor and intelligence. The data vary depending on how you define intelligence (the studies correlate with IQ tests), and what kind of humor you are talking about. But the point is well taken: Leaders who are happy, and quick to laugh, are more effective, and have less turnover.

So Go Ahead, Laugh It Up

Reinvent enthusiasm in your company by supporting growth through laughter. Not only will you create a culture of risk-free thinking, but also when you lead with humor, and add a lighthearted approach to your business strategy, you will have an easier time steering your firm through tough times. Your lighter moments just may be what you need to come up with that next big idea.

About Robin McDougal

For the last 25 years, Robin McDougal has been a marketing executive at Trans World Airlines and the Marriott Corporation, and has conducted spaceflight simulations and developed a critical thinking and problem-solving curriculum for the Challenger Center for Space Science Education.

In 2001, she founded e-GLAM Inc., a manufacturer of high-end laptop briefcases and handbags. For more information, visit www.e-glam.com.

Check out Robin’s blog, Robinmcdougal.wordpress.com.

And click here to read how Robin McDougal, Has It in the Bag.

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