Sometimes it’s better to disarm than to arm. Put another way, humor can be both a powerful leadership and tactical tool for security.
Humor is tricky business in the security world, however. Briefing staff on warning signs of workplace violence, precursors of terrorist attacks, contingency plans for natural disasters, and methods of corporate espionage doesn’t exactly lend themselves to one-liners. Dealing with most security incidents isn’t a laughing matter. Moreover, a security professional who cracks jokes, or even shows a lighter side on the job, risks being viewed as unprofessional.
Yet humor has a powerful role in leadership — even in security leadership. I’m not talking about inappropriate or off-color humor or barbs at the expense of direct reports. By contrast, mild self-deprecation, droll commentary on unusual situations, and lighthearted comments that puncture stressful moments can yield huge benefits. According to an article in Harvard Business Review citing research from Wharton, MIT and London Business School, “every chuckle or guffaw brings with it a host of business benefits. Laughter relieves stress and boredom, boosts engagement and well-being, and spurs not only creativity and collaboration but also analytic precision and productivity.”
Brian Reich, Head of Corporate Security for financial services company CIT, can attest to those findings. Reich used to be a stand-up comic, and he still practices comedy to keep his management skills sharp. “The ability to connect with people is truly the art of comedy, and by extension, communication,” he explains. “Being funny is a byproduct of connecting with people. To be impactful, comedy has to be believable and relatable, and the presenter likable.
Another naturally funny security executive who wields humor strategically is Torsten Wolf, Head of Group Security Operations at Zurich Insurance Company. “Humor comes to me naturally,” he says, but timing is critical. He says he uses humor to “defuse tense discussions or situations. I try to build it into presentations to put people at ease or win them over.”
Many of the qualities of humor overlap with the building blocks of leadership, including humility, communication, balance, accessibility, authenticity, influence, trust, social intelligence and conflict management. For example, Reich says that gaining trust when taking over new teams depends on connection and likability, and humor can be a powerful way to capture a skeptical audience.
Most security executives aren’t stand-up comedians. Heavy-handed attempts at humor often misfire, resulting in staff who are offended and superiors who question your judgment. Humor can be “dangerous,” agrees Wolf. “Not everybody shares your sense of humor or understands it. Therefore, in terms of strategy, I also think carefully about when it’s better not to use it.”
For those reasons, it’s critical to gauge the corporate culture and top management’s attitude toward humor. Equally important is knowing your audience. Authentic humor that reflects your personality and stays within these guardrails can be extremely powerful.So, when the time is right, “disarming and humorous” beats “armed and dangerous.”