Elon Musk, joking around is serious business!

by Jamie Anderson,  Gabor George Burt & Art Reid

Image result for elon musk

Elon Musk,

Truly creative leaders tap ideas from all ranks, and are typically skilful at fostering innovation. They are open to diverse perspectives, and willing to take risks.  These leadership characteristics can be further enhanced by humor.  In the words of IDEO founder and CEO Dave Kelly, If you go into a culture and there’s a bunch of stiffs going around, I can guarantee they’re not likely to invent anything.” 

There’s an entire branch of social science that studies the psychological and physiological effects of humor and laughter on the brain and the immune system— it’s called gelotology. Discoveries in this field have demonstrated that humor, laughter and fun release physical and cognitive tension, which leads to mental flexibility—a key component of creativity, ideation, and problem solving.  Gelotology can also explain why many frontline business leaders are not just leveraging humor, but are also investing in creating playful and fun work environments.

Up until recently Elon Musk’s eccentricity and wacky sense of humor havebeen seen by most as a reflection of his genius, being a maverick innovator and business leader. His sense of humour has often been on display. For example, when asked how to warm Mars up to make it hospitable for humans he answered: “The fast way is to drop thermonuclear weapons over the poles.” And on how he’d rather die: “I would like to die on Mars. Just not on impact.” When asked if he was a Martian alien, “The rumour that I’m building a spaceship to get back to my home planet Mars is totally untrue.”

Musk had even considered taking merriment at his car plants to new heights (no pun intended), declaring in one interview “I’m actually wondering about putting in a roller coaster — like a functional roller coaster at the factory in Fremont. You’d get in, and it would take you around [the] factory but also up and down. Who else has a roller coaster? … It would probably be really expensive, but I like the idea of it.”

In February 2018, helaunched his now-famous red Tesla Roadster sports car into space, atop the first SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. Complete with a manikin wearing a spacesuit in the driver’s seat, the car had a GPS Navigation system that displayed the message “Don’t Panic.”After launching the Tesla Roadster into space Musk declared: “It’s just going to be out there in space for maybe millions or billions of years. Maybe discovered by some future alien race thinking what the heck, what were these guys doing? Did they worship this car? Why do they have a little car in the car? And that’ll really confuse them.”

But while certain eccentricities of a leader are idiosyncratic part of their personality, we view humor as a leadership skill that can be studied, cultivated, and leveraged to drive organizational excellence. To provide guidance for this process, we created the Stand-Up Strategist 4C/S Framework (see table below), which specifies four major organizationalconditions or outcomes enabled by humor,and four styles of humor at the disposal of leaders.

Unfortunately for Mr. Musk, his seemingly intrinsic style is that of strong humor, which has the most limited application and needs the most mastery to navigate. Strong humor most often entails sarcasm or cynicism and is used by a leader as put-down, as a signal of dominance or to encourage conformity to group behavioral norms. It is the comic style mostly associated with generating negative emotions, and therefore the one with the most limited application in organizations.

An illustration of Musk using strong humor was a comment reportedly made in Tesla’s early days, in response to an employee complaining about working too hard: “I would tell those people they will get to see their families a lot when we go bankrupt.” Although Musk’s misuse of humordid not become a major point of friction in the past, things became different when the performance of his company started to be questioned.

Tesla shares crashed 6% and two of its senior executives quit in early September this year, just hours after Musk sparked concern by cracking sarcastic jokes and smoking marijuana on a live web show. Musk’s antics occurred at a time when Tesla’s investors were becoming increasingly concerned over its finances and ability to build cars at scale.

Leaders need to be especially tactful when using humor as a tool to address stress, anxiety and organizational crises. And while other styles of humor may be effective, strong humor must be avoided altogether for this purpose. During a difficult period for the company, the then CEO of Yahoo! Marissa Mayer was widely condemned for joking at an employee gathering: “I’m not here to announce lay-offs (pause)…this week.”

Similarly, Musk’s sardonic tweets, musings about sleeping on the floor at Tesla and wise cracks about becoming chronically sleep deprived have not exactly delighted his shareholders, and prompted severalWall Street analysts to call for the company to appoint a no-nonsense deputy to prop-up Tesla’s operations and standing with investors.

The lesson from Mr. Musk’s ordeal is not to avoid humor. Rather, it is to understand its proper application, and to use it appropriately and effectively, like any other important leadership skill. We see more and more leaders harnessing the power of humor to unleash the creative potential of their staff, connect emotionally with customers, and lay the seed for new, future-shaping, strategic directions.

Afterall, joking around is serious business.

The Stand-Up Strategist 4 C/S Framework

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Stand-Up Strategy

Jamie Anderson & Gabor George Burt

In our interactions with leaders of the world’s most successful and innovative companies we have been struck by a recurring phenomenon – not only are these leaders intelligent, and forward-thinking, many of them are also very funny. Not only are they able to deliver a flawless punchline at a cocktail reception – they are also able to leverage humor as a strategic tool to achieve four important organizational outcomes.  Here is how you can do the same.

First, you can use humor to foster a strong sense of corporate community. Psychologists and social scientists have shown that people who laugh together have deeper feelings of empathy and bonding. So, draw on jokes, funny anecdotes and stories to get your employees to laugh together.

We recall a joke told by a regional CEO in a European-based telecom equipment company to open an employee meeting: CEO: “Knock, knock.” Audience: “Who’s there?” CEO: “China!” The firm had recently lost important contracts to Chinese competitors, so everybody in the room immediately understood the punch line. The CEO went on to speak about the need for greater agility, alignment and collaboration.

Second, you can apply humor to help maintain composure. Quite simply, individuals with a high sense of humor experience less stress than individuals without, even in situations where both face similar challenges.  Therefore, you should aim to maintain a sense of humor first and foremost for your own wellbeing. Mervyn Eyre, who heads Infrastructure Services for Fujitsu Americas from Jamaica, notes: “While leadership is a serious responsibility, I do think we take ourselves too seriously at times. I have no hesitation to LOL when I find stories or situations funny at work, and occasionally even ROFLMAO.” For the un-initiated, the latter acronym stands for Rolling-On-the-Floor-Laughing-My-Ass-Off.

Sarah Lahav, CEO of SysAid Technologies in Israel offers this advice: “Work hard, go above and beyond your job description if you want to make a difference, and ensure you have a sense of humor. The last one is particularly important, because if you can’t laugh at yourself when someone is making inappropriate jokes or when you make a mistake, then life is going to be toughNever ever forget your sense of humor.”

In group situations, you can utilize humor to reduce the pressure of stress associated with deadlines or crises. Jokes and funny stories are best leveraged in these situations, not to make targets or challenges disappear, but to improve morale and increase solidarity of purpose.  Terry Davis , former CEO of Coca Cola Amatil Australia, was known for his sense of humor. At one gathering he blew-up a competitor’s vending machine, and at another he took to the stage at a time when his sales managers were falling behind budget. He asked everyone to stand, reach under their seat, and find what was there. Every seat had a $5 note or $2 coin taped underneath. He then commented: “You see, all you have to do is get off your arses and you will find revenue.”

Thirdly, in order to navigate a VUCA world, you must excel at piloting ongoing organizational change and metamorphosis. Using humor can boost message retention among your employees, enable positive emotions and re-enforce core company values. Jack Ma, Founder and Executive Chairman of Alibaba Group, is a renowned storyteller. His rags to riches story is inspiring, because he overcame so many obstacles before achieving success.  Here is the humorous, disarming way he tells it:

“I had a lot of failures…I failed a key primary school test two times, and I failed three times for middle schools. I even failed my university exams two times… I applied for thirty jobs, got rejected…When KFC came to China, came to my city, 24 people went for the job – 23 people were accepted, I was the only guy who got rejected.”

 Ma shares his funny stories of rejection and resilience to re-enforce Alibaba’s core organizational values of entrepreneurialism, risk-taking and persistence. Similarly, you should infuse funny elements into your own strategic storytelling.

The fourth organizational outcome humor enables you to achieve is perhaps the most important: creativity. Laughter and fun release physical and cognitive tension, which can lead to perceptual flexibility—a required component for ideation and problem solving. Future-shaping leaders recognize the impact of humor to generate creative ideas from all ranks, spur diverse perspectives and foster innovation. In the words of IDEO founder and CEO Dave Kelly, “If you go into a culture and there’s a bunch of stiffs going around, I can guarantee they’re not likely to invent anything.”

The growing embrace of humor among leaders as engine of creativity is substantiated by the global proliferation of corporate April Fools mischief. Every year, the first of April brings new heights in the number and elaborateness of institutionalized pranking around the world, fully endorsed and even personally fronted by business leaders. You should get your organization to join the fun. It will send the strong, internal message that creativity is a valued resource.

Of course, humor can be subjective – what one person finds hilarious another may not. So, knowing your audience is paramount. Leaders who score high in the effective use of humor also tend to score high in emotional intelligence. The global nature of business today means that you must also be adept at adjusting your style of humor as you cross societal boundaries – an aspect of what has become known as cultural intelligence. Any ‘outsider’ who has worked in Nigeria or Russia soon comes to understand that while locals frequently joke about corruption, foreigners should not.

Now throw the instantaneous and global reach of social media into the mix, and we might soon be talking about digital intelligence too. Using these new communication platforms, your humorous commentary, if used wisely, is only a screen tap away from reaching audiences inside and outside your organization. As a leader, you never before had access to this kind of mass intimacy, which is a natural podium for humorous expression.

It’s high time we jump to conclusions: Future-shaping business leaders are re-discovering humor as a vital driver of organizational success. Consequently, the joke is on you if you fail to seize its power in guiding your organization’s ongoing relevance.

May the farce be with you.

See Jamie’s TEDx Talk ‘The Stand-Up Strategists.’

You Always Have a Choice. Or not?

Guest blog with Cyriel Kortlieven

Creative Thinking is all about seeing what other people see, but then seeing something different. For example, from a mathematical point of view, the answer to the sum 1+1 appears to have one clear answer. But if you look at it from a more creative point of view, it could also be 11 – if you put the numbers next to each other. Or it could become a “+” if you laid one numeral horizontally on top of the other. For the truly creative, there is never one solution to a problem, which means that we always have a choice in the way that we approach complexity.

You always have a choice. Or do you?

 But, do we have a choice in everything?

We can’t choose the weather and we can’t choose whether our partner will be in a good mood or not. That’s true- but we can choose how we respond to the weather or the mood of our partner. Even in extreme cases – for example being robbed in the street – you have choice. You could hand over your wallet, try to escape, wrestle with the aggressor, or shout for the police. But it is pointless to dwell on theoretical discussions in these extreme situations. In 99,9% of cases, we have a lot more choice about thinking, feeling and behavior than we think.

You rarely have a choice

If you always make conscious life decisions then why are so many people still stuck in situations that they don’t like? Why are so many people not living up to their dreams and aspirations?  Why do many people (unconsciously) not make choices?

That’s where our biology comes in. Only some of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are preceded by conscious intentions. But most of the time, we operate on an autopilot with our unconscious mind at the steering wheel.

Our conscious brains can only handle roughly 40 bits of information a second, while our unconscious minds can handle 11 million bits of information per second. Our unconscious brain is fast, instinctive and emotional. The conscious part of the brain is slower, more deliberative and logical. Our unconscious brain cares about 2 things: survival and maintaining the status quo (because the status quo preserves energy, which increases the chances of survival). The decisions that our unconscious brain is making are highly context-dependent. Whatever is going on at that moment – the weather, your state of mind, the time of the day, the last thing you ate or saw or felt – can influence your thoughts and decisions.

Does this mean that your unconscious brain is sabotaging the conscious brain? No, it’s just a different system.

But how can I make a conscious choice (and change my life for the long-term?)

Does this mean that I just have to accept that my unconscious mind is always the master of my thoughts? Must I stop making conscious choices to improve my life (and get out of situations where I’m not happy?). Absolutely not- but don’t assume it will be easy.

The ‘trick’ is to use the substantial power of the unconscious brain. How? By creating a clear pattern. Our brains are wired to create habits, and if we do something often enough (especially if it’s tied to an external cue and reward), it will become second nature. It’s not will-power or self-control that we need to focus on- it’s all about consistency and perseverance. Repeat a certain habit that you want to achieve.

Jocelyn Campbell describes a 4 step process in her article ‘7 Self-Help Myths that are Keeping You Stuck’:

  1. Create an Intention (be specific, and have a clear vision of the outcome) E.g.: I want to lose 5 kg and will complete a 20 km run in August this year.
  2. Determine how you are going to keep your focus on the intention. What’s the cue that could trigger a certain habit? This is an important step because it’s the moment that puts things into motion. E.g. I will place my running shoes next to me before I go bed.
  3. Identify what you will do WHEN things don’t go according to plan. Be sure that things will go differently – it’s not easy to predict what can happen, but you can probably already imagine three or four scenarios when it will be harder to persevere your new habit). E.g. if it’s rainy, my first task for the day is to go to the gym and run on the treadmill.
  4. Reward yourself when you follow through Eg: I will get a nice breakfast after my run.

You can reprogram your automatic behavior so it aligns better with the conscious intentions of your life. But that means committing to the process, being patient and persevering.

It is possible to make conscious and creative choices in life, but it won’t be easy!


Cyriel Kortleven  is an international speaker and author, and has published four books on creativity & change. https://www.cyrielkortleven.com/about/


Leadership for Good: The Mandela Legacy

Nelson Mandela by rolandtelema

Artwork by Roland Telema

By Jamie Anderson & Babita Mathur-Helm

Given the leadership change that is now underway in South Africa, it is time to reflect upon the legacy left by Nelson Mandela, the country’s first post-apartheid President. At a time of so much social change, not just in South Africa but in the wider world, there is a lot of talk about the leadership traits that will be required to drive positive outcomes for humanity in the 21st Century.  But we believe that the focus on leadership at this time of uncertainty is somewhat misplaced – the real challenge will be to inspire humanity towards following a path to peace and prosperity for all.  And Nelson Mandela’s story provides insight into how building and sustaining a  follower-driven movement can be achieved.

In this post we reflect upon the legacy of Nelson Mandela. We demonstrate how Mandela was able to build and sustain a followership base as part of creating momentum towards achieving positive social transformation. He was able to evolve a remarkably consistent approach to delivering what we see as the three pillars of a followership, and each of these pillars will be discussed in turn.  We will demonstrate how Mandela’s story provides a powerful lesson for global leaders who are looking to create momentum for positive change in today’s turbulent and complex times.

The Personal Narrative – Who am I

The best leaders excel in their followers’ eyes by being themselves and by providing insights about what shaped them into who they are. They are able to communicate “Who am I” and Nelson Mandela seemed to understand this from a very early age.

After his father’s death in 1927, the young Mandela became the ward of Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, the acting regent of the Thembu nation. It was at the Thembu royal homestead that his personality and values took shape. He learnt how a chief should listen to others, and this led him to be a very patient listener and to appreciate the power of humility.

Mandela was well aware that his political uprising would lead to prosecution and confinement by the ruling government, yet he remained undeterred by the consequences of his actions. In the prime time of his life Mandela was imprisoned, and as such was stripped of those possessions that sometimes denote a leader – certain attire, actions, behaviours, and material goods, but also dignity. His sense of autonomy was lost, but rather than despair his focus moved to the internal, and directed him to rely on internal self-control and integrity.  When he saw that his outer world was becoming confined, his interior world became bigger.

Even in imprisonment, Mandela carried himself with grace, standing tall, looking people in the eye, and speaking with a firm but humble voice, all of which communicated dignity and respect not only for how he treated others but how he expected to be treated by others, even those who would oppress him. Mandela acquired the ability to deal with the prison guards, who controlled his life, and in interviews after his release some of these guards talked about how one of Mandela’s most endearing qualities was his big, broad, kind smile that put others at ease.

When he went out into the larger world after his incarceration, many world leaders spoke of the traits of grace and dignity, traits that had evolved during his twenty-seven years of imprisonment. His demeanour, behavour and language embodied the anti-apartheid movement which after all was built upon universal principles of equality and respect, rather than anger or hatred.  Mandela provided a role model, and moved his followers to defy the racist policies of the South African government in a peaceful and dignified manner.

Mandela had a natural presence that led him to engage with others at a deeper emotional level. Assuredness and attractiveness, as traits of confidence and humility in the being of a leader, defines for them who they are.  The uniqueness of Mandela’s personality and confidence, and acceptance of it, meant in his own words “I do not need to pretend to be someone I am not.”

Like Nelson Mandela, leaders of today’s social movements need to demonstrate authenticity in their actions and words. The leader must have a clear understanding about what he or she wants to be known for, to draw on their life experience to do this in an authentic way, and then ensure that these traits are communicated consistently.

The Collective Narrative – Who are We?

Beyond demanding the individual narrative of “Who am I” followers will give their hearts to figures who make them feel a part of something and say, “You really matter,” no matter how small the followers’ contributions may be.  Nelson Mandela understood that followers want to feel part of a community and saw his natural colleagues as the mass of ordinary South Africans.   Despite his regal nature, his identification was entirely with ordinary human beings, of all races, religions and creeds.

Mandela’s followers possessed the strong desire to end years of segregation and discrimination, and to become part of the struggle. Correspondingly, they felt empowered to adopt the necessary measures to achieve their common goals, and were willing to abide by guidance given by their leader.

Perhaps the most powerful demonstration of this guidance was his  appearance at the opening ceremony and final match of the 1995 Rugby World Cup hosted by South Africa. The image of a smiling Nelson Mandela wearing the Springbok Jersey, a powerful symbol of Afrikaans heritage, was broadcast around the world. Handing the trophy to Springbok captain Pienaar after South Africa’s victory in the final against New Zealand, Mandela’s gesture was a powerful statement about the emerging collective narrative of what it meant to celebrate being a South African.

Mandela seemed to recognize that the charismatic effects of his actions were more likely to occur in contexts in which his followers felt conflicted, and through the Springbok victory gave all South Africans reason to cheer together. His actions at the World Cup inspired followers not only across all levels of society in South Africa, but across the world.

Nelson Mandela was able to motivate followers by inspiring and empowering them towards achieving a common vision through a strong sense of purpose and commitment. His ability to inspire followers denoted a high level of collective insight, and through his empathy, and powerful social skills he was able to inspire others towards the collective good.

Where are we going?

The final pillar of building and sustaining a followership base towards social change is termed the future narrative, or “Where are we going.”  As a young man Mandela had the vision to end the apartheid system and led a campaign of peaceful, non-violent defiance against the South African government. His followers believed that his vision represented the means to end years of discrimination, and through his charisma and oratorical skills was able to inspire millions to the cause. But his vision was not just about ending apartheid – it was about imagining a future South Africa of equality, unity and prosperity.

In his inauguration as the first post apartheid President of the South African Republic he described his vision for a ‘Rainbow Nation’ which brought to the fore and united the socio-cultural diversity of South Africa, and countered previous apartheid divisions. In his own words: “We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people. We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

The inclusiveness of Mandela’s inauguration speech was important as it lead to the inception of good faith negotiations between the National Party, the ruling party at the time, and Mandela’s African National Congress Party. But perhaps more importantly, it inspired a post-apartheid vision of what South Africa might become.

As the country’s first black president, Mandela’s monumental success provided inspiration for other, leaders including former U.S. President Barack Obama. At a time of global volatility and uncertainty we need more such leaders to inspire positive change.


Nelson Mandela understood that followers demand authenticity, a sense of community and an exciting future vision. He epitomized the transformational leader whose values transcend beyond that of his or her own needs for the greater good of humanity.  In today’s world in which we witness so many divisions and conflicts across the racial, social, religious and political spectrum we need leaders who are similarly able to bring people together to celebrate what is common and shared.

Want to Innovate? Start with a joke!


This Post Co-authored with Gabor George Burt

In the beginning, there was humor and there was laughter. And it was good. But then, work became suffocatingly serious. Until now.

There’s an entire branch of social science that studies the psychological and physiological effects of humor and laughter on the brain and the immune system— it’s called gelotology. Discoveries in this field have demonstrated that humor, laughter and fun releases physical and cognitive tension, which can lead to perceptual flexibility—a required component of creativity, ideation, and problem solving. So to get the most out of innovation processes such as design thnking, truly creative leaders also need to master the social dynamics of… [wait for the punchline}…humor!

But in the world of leadership, humor has typically been typecast as a manifestation of individual personalities and thereby a spontaneous and non-replicable activity. Much less attention has been given to the idea that humor might be acquired, learned and nurtured.

We have witnessed that skilled leaders, those we call “Stand-Up Strategists”, understand the utility of humor to boost innovation.  In the words of IDEO founder Dave Kelly: “If you go into a culture and there’s a bunch of stiffs going around, I can guarantee they’re not likely to invent anything.”

Of course, humor can be highly subjective and what one person finds hilarious another person may not – so knowing your audience is paramount. It is therefore not surprising that business leaders who score high in the effective use of humor as a tool to boost innovtion also tend to score high in emotional intelligence.

Ceative leaders also have an intuitive appreciation of the four humor styles, and understand how these styles can be nurtured – or sometimes curtailed – in others. The first three styles generally generate positive emotions, while the fourth is more typically associated with negative emotions and therefore has the most limited application with regard to enabling perceptual flexibility:

  • Sense of Fun involves a leader projecting an energetic, positive, playful vibe, and having a generally humorous outlook. It also involves the ability to appreciate the humor and playfulness of others.
  • Self-deprecating humor is the act of a leader to laugh at him/herself through self-belittlement, excessive modesty or downplaying own achievements. The purpose is to reduce power-distance.
  • Social humor is about boosting human interaction, and is used by a leader to enhance relationships. It typically involves jokes or stories shared as a tool to reduce interpersonal tension, increase sociability and promote openness.
  • Strong humor most often entails sarcasm or cynicism and is used by a leader as put-down, as a tool for hierarchical control, as a signal of dominance or to encourage conformity to group behavioral norms.

With his Groucho Marx moustache and quirky personality, IDEO’s Kelly is renowned for his sense of fun. Any visitor to an IDEO office immediately appreciates the importance of levity in the organization’s culture – indeed, having a sense of humor is a key criterion for recruitment into the firm.

Senior leaders – including Kelly himself – are sometimes self-deprecating, a cultural behaviour that reduces hierarchy and power-distance and ensure that ideas come from all ranks.  But while self-deprecating humor can reduce social distance and make leaders seem more collaborative, participative and open to their employees, leaders shouldn’t over do it. Studies have shown that humorous self-criticism works much less well as a tool to engage with peers and superiors, and can even reduce one’s credibility with subordinates – if used excessively.

Social humor is practiced as part of the IDEO design thinking process that “encourages wild ideas” to take root. Even the most absurd perspectives are embraced, and people are encouraged to “defer judgement”. Team members openly make fun of failures related to the ideation process in a way that nurtures their collective, creative input.

Positive humor can also be utilized to reduce the pressure of stress associated with deadlines – not to make targets or challenges disappear, but to improve morale and increase solidarity of purpose. IDEO embraces the understanding that individuals with a high sense of humor tend to experience less stress than individuals with a low sense of humor, even in situations where both face similar challenges.  So Project Leaders are identified not on a basis of seniority, but for their track record of orchestrating positive social interactions between people – of which humor is a critical component.

The fun and humor-filled work culture at companies such as IDEO are well known, but efforts can start at the team or departmental level in any organization – even those not renowned for having fun-embracing corporate cultures. Lilli Marlen Christ is an energetic development manager who works for German automotive firm Daimler AG in China, and opens her weekly team meetings with a joke or a riddle. She has found it a useful approach for reducing hierarchy, boosting openness and increasing divergent thinking.

When it comes to boosting innovation the overwhelming focus should be on styles of humour that generate positive emotions. Just as there are rules for the design-thinking process at IDEO, there are unspoken rules about the humor that is acceptable – cyncism, ridicule, sexist and racist humor are considered completely inappropriate. Inappropriate humor can stifle people’s creative confidence in any organization – not to mention contributing to reduced morale, absenteeism, the elevation of dysfunctional internal competition, and even company-level reputational damage.

But from a gelotological point of view, innovation is one of the few areas of business in which strong humor such as sarcasm can potentially pay dividends – so long as it’s practice is limited to environments in which people already know, trust and like each other. Research has shown that receiving sarcastic comments and other forms of strong humor from trusted co-workers can stimulate creativity without spurring conflict.

Pixar Animation Studios understands the power of such strong peer feedback. It has created what it calls its ‘Brain Trust’, consisting of a group of highly accomplished directors. When a director and producer feel in need of assistance, they convene the group and show the current version of a movie in progress. This is followed by a fiery discussion that can last up to two hours, unlocking provocative suggestions and constructive criticism. The sessions are frequently punctuated by laughter, but nobody pulls any punches to be polite. This works because all the participants have come to trust and respect one another – but leadership still actively moderates to ensure that no red-lines are crossed.  In these interactions, strong humor is  never used as a put-down, as a tool for hierarchical control, or as a signal of dominance.

Discoveries in the field of gelotology also explain why companies such as IDEO, Google and Lego are investing in creating playful and fun work spaces.  IDEO offices are designed to encourage fun and freedom of expression, with employees ofen designing their own work-spaces. Elon Musk, co-founder of Tesla Inc. has considered taking merriment at his car plants to a new level, with an idea to install a fully functioning roller coaster to shuttle employees around the Tesla factory in Fremont.

Today, we stand at the precipice of a new era. Future-shaping business leaders are re-discovering the power of humor as a vital driver of organizational success. “Stand-Up Strategists” are leaders who understand the utility of humor to boost creativity and innovation. The joke is on those who fail to seize the power of humor in guiding their organization’s ongoing relevance.

May the farce be with you.



Beard, A. (2014) Leading with Humor, Harvard Business Review, May,  Available at: https://hbr.org/2014/05/leading-with-humor [Accessed: 18 October 2017]

Catmul, E. (2008) How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity. Harvard Business Review, September, Vol. 86 Issue 9, p64‐72.

Huang, Li, F. Gino, and Adam D. Galinsky (2015). The Highest Form of Intelligence: Sarcasm Increases Creativity for Both Exressers and Recipients. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 131 (November), 162–177.

Zhang, G. (2014). Office Humor, London Business School Review (Online Edition), 4 February. Available at: https://www.london.edu/faculty-and-research/lbsr/office-humor#.WeXmkROCzJx [Accessed: 10 December 2017]





Creative Courage

Portrait 2

In my workshops and keynote talks about creative thinking, I often use a simple drawing exercise that has a startling effect on people. Some jump into the exercise with a sense of fun and delight, while others approach it with fear and trepidation. In some cases participants revolt, and simply refuse to participate. So what kind of exercise could spark such a wide spectrum of reactions? I simply ask participants to draw a picture of the person sitting next to them!

The exercise is introduced like this (maybe you would like to try it): 

“Please turn to the person next to you and make a hand drawn picture of them in life like detail. You should use paper and pen, and do not draw in abstract. It should be a life-like image. You have two minutes to do draw the picture. After completing the drawing, show it to them.”

In my experience, and despite its simplicity, this creative task can strike fear into the hearts of even the most experienced executives. Why? Because they are being asked to do something which: a) They do not feel they have the skills to do well, and b) they are concerned that the result might cause offence in the other. This in turn creates anxiety and inhibition – what if I fail; what if the other person is upset?

A Fear of Embarrassment

In some situations, such as a recent keynote at an event with 250 senior banking executives from across Europe, I have experienced these anxieties manifest themselves in annoyance and even anger, with people refusing to participate. At this particular event, there was little laughter and fun, and many participants were simply unwilling to engage in a what could be a playful and creative experience. I repeatedly approached one senior participant from a large French bank who was refusing to participate, and on the third try was actually told to “F**ck off”.

The reactions of anxiety are perhaps understandable given the fact that few adults have engaged in creative drawing since the age of nine or ten – as demonstrated by the outputs of most participants. The two portraits accompanying this post were drawn by people in their forties, one an engineer and the other a corporate lawyer.

It is around the age of ten when most people start to be told that art will never get them a good job, and from this point on the education system starts to actively discriminate against subjects involving creativity (see  my previous post on childhood creativity). At the top of the education system is mathematics and languages, then the humanities and at the bottom any subject involving true expressive creativity – music, dance and fine art.

But despite this lack of drawing skill, some participants embrace the exercise with a sense of excitement, curiosity and good humor, and what this tells us is that these people are quite happy just to have a go and to leave their ego aside. Unlike so many other adults, they have hung on to their creative courage.

And this parallels my wider experience in that the truly creative managers that I have met are willing to issue statements of ignorance when the situation calls for it – to say that they do not know. But more importantly, they are willing to dive into new situations with humility and openness, they are open to lifelong learning, and they have retained a sense of enthusiasm and fun.

Fear & Ego

I recently did the portrait exercise with a global team of legal experts from a leading technology company, and the senior leader from the US was almost falling off her chair with laughter as she completed her drawing. Throughout the workshop, I was told time and time again about the way that she was positively transforming the culture towards openness and knowledge sharing – a very different situation to what existed under the stiff and hierarchical previous boss.

In contrast, those who get angry or annoyed and boycott the drawing exercise reveal their concern for status, and the fear of admitting a lack of skill or knowledge. And in my experience these kind of people are much less effective in dealing with uncertain and complex situations that require people to collaborate towards coming up with novel solutions.  They tend to engage in building internal kingdoms and fiefdoms, sustaining internal silos instead of facilitating cross-business cooperation.

It has also been interesting for me to observe that if I do the exercise with a team, if the ego-driven leader refuses to do the exercise then this same behavior is often adopted by his or her subordinates. This typically reflects broader dysfunctional behavior at the team-level, with fear-based relationships and a lack of candor in communication. As a Belgian manager named Jean-Pierre once said to me after I observed his team following the lead of a non-drawing boss: “If I had done the exercise, there might have been consequences.”

Fear of upsetting the other

For those who are reluctant to do the portrait exercise because they are concerned that the result might cause offence in the other, the issue is not so much about ego. Rather, it is about the desire to sustain positive and harmonious relationships. One British participant named Kathy actually said to me: “But if I draw his picture, he might not like me anymore.” She proceeded to draw, all the while saying “I’m sorry, I’m really sorry” to the man sitting opposite her!

Of course, there are strong cultural dimensions at play here. In some societies, such as Japan and Indonesia, people are very much conscious of causing others to “lose face” through public criticism or shaming, and in my experience people from these countries can find this exercise very difficult to do – especially if they do not know the other person, or the other is perceived to be in a higher hierarchical position.  But I have seen similar reactions in organizations with strong internal hierarchies, and in which junior people are not expected to challenge or give feedback to more senior people.

Creative Courage Can Thrive

Real creativity can only happen in cultures in which people are inspired to explore, to experiment and to fail. Daily interactions happen in a spirit of good humor, and people are not afraid to upset their colleagues through offering opinions and honest feedback. Equally, people in creative cultures are not quick to criticize, and accept the opinions of others with humility and in the spirit of good intent. Organizational politics tends to be frowned upon, hierarchy is banished and people with big egos are marginalized. Because truly creative cultures understand that dealing with complex and uncertain situations requires the power of the collective intellect, not some flash of insight from an arrogant genius.

So a good barometer of the openness to creativity in your organization is a simple little exercise. In your next team meeting, just ask your colleagues to draw a picture of the person sitting next to them.

If you enjoyed this blogpost, you might also enjoy my Keynote Talk about Creative Thinking.

Portrait 1

Damien Hirst – Innovator


“I can’t wait to get into a position to make really bad art and get away with it. At the moment if I did certain things people would look at it, consider it and then say ‘fuck off’. But after a while you can get away with things.” Damien Hirst, 1988

Damien Hirst, the bad boy of contemporary art, has spent his career breaking the rules of the established art industry, and his success provides a number of important lessons for organizations.

A new WHO

One of Hirst’s earliest breakthroughs was the recognition that the late 20th century had seen the emergence of ‘non-traditional’ art buyers – a new WHO that the contemporary art world of artists, dealers, curators and galleries had been slow to serve. These were consumers, many of them from relatively ‘new wealth’, who did not buy for artistic interest alone – they bought for fun or status, or invested to sell at a profit when they decided to sell the artwork again.

One of Hirst’s prominent customers was Steve Cohen, the billionaire who purchased Hirst’s shark sculpture, ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’. Said one art critic: “..the idea that the American hedge fund broker Steve Cohen, out of a hypnotised form of culture-snobbery, would pay an alleged $12 million for a third of a tonne of shark, far gone in decay, is so risible that it beggars the imagination… Of course, $12 million would be nothing to Cohen, but the thought of paying that price for a rotten fish is an outright obscenity.”

Hirst and his mentor Charles Saatchi understood this, and they also appreciated that a very real issue for many ‘non-traditional’ buyers at the high-end of the art market was expected future return on investment. The way to meet these expectations – status and investment returns – was to create unique and strongly branded products.

A new WHAT

Another of Hirst’s very early insights was his recognition that by the end of the 20th century the established art world had come to define ‘works of art’ rather narrowly. In the early years of Hirst’s career both he and Saatchi identified the need to create a new WHAT –  images, symbols and signs that buyers could acknowledge as unique, whether or not they were attracted to them.

While animals – alive and dead – had been exhibited in museums, aquariums and zoos for centuries, the art world had remained largely blind to the potential of incorporating biological elements.  Through his use of animals and animal parts in his sculptures and other objects of art, Hirst created a uniquely differentiated artistic style. Hirst’s shark sculpture became the icon of British art in the 1990s, and a symbol of Britart worldwide.

The degree of opposition to Hirst’s work indicated the degree to which the established art world was blinkered to the massive commercial opportunities arising from the new WHAT created by Hirst and Saatchi during the 1990s. The leading art critic Robert Hughes attacked Hirst as responsible for “the decline of contemporary art”. But Hughes and many other highly respected critics from the art ‘establishment’ seemed blind to an emerging reality – at a time when the quantity of art being produced was exploding, successful commercial exploitation of art was no longer primarily about the physical manifestation of a piece of art.

Hirst’s idea early in his career was not first and foremost to produce a solid and sustainable body of work, like classical artist as Klee, Picasso or Barnet Newman. Instead, the primary objective of Hirst seemed to be to establish his own brand and differentiate his unique works through direct and often shocking provocation. What he proved, and what astounded many art critics, was that there was a multi-million dollar market for art work incorporating rotting meat, maggots and dead sheep.

A new HOW

But Hirst did not only question the WHO and WHAT of the established art world. He also challenged established approaches to HOW art work should be exhibited, produced and sold. Right from the beginning Hirst followed a different path to access art consumers. Instead of using only the traditional way of distributing art through dealers he also adopted the role of curator.

He also created a new HOW in terms of art production. Although Hirst participated physically in the making of early works, he had always needed assistants. But by the late 1990s the sheer volume of work produced necessitated a “factory”, with Hirst working closely with his main art production company called Science Ltd. While “factory” production had been used by other prominent artists throughout history, like Andy Warhol, Hirst was perhaps unique in the minimal level of input that he contributed to many of his works. Hirst had publicly said that he only painted five of several hundred spot paintings produced by his studio because, “I couldn’t be fucking arsed doing it”.

Hirst believed that modern-day artists, especially those already exhibiting at the high-end of the market, had been largely blind to yet another new HOW – the sale of contemporary art through the world’s auction houses. For centuries artists had distributed their art works through dealers and galleries, with auction houses typically selling the art works of collectors rather than works directly from artists themselves.  It was also virtually unknown for an auction to include works younger than two years old.

Hirst’s Sotheby’s auction represented the first time that an artist of his standing had put work directly into the public market rather than operating through dealers and galleries who charged larger commissions. Hirst said, “It’s a very democratic way to sell art and it feels like a natural evolution for contemporary art.”

Lessons for all

The strategy adopted by Hirst witnessed the emergence of a new market space, where he was the first and only player. Although the traditional art world had not consciously ignored the new market created by Hirst, the industry’s focus upon the traditional WHO-WHAT-HOW boundaries of art had created a significant degree of inertia.  The success of Damien Hirst has important implications for practicing managers who need to recognise that their own experience might make them blind to opportunities for strategic innovation.

The challenge for today’s managers is nothing less than removing their organization’s innovation cataracts, and to do this they must continuously question the WHO-WHAT-HOW traditions of their industries.