They Who Laugh, Last!
December, 1999
Paul E. McGhee, PhD

A New Kind of Leadership

"I don't want any yes-men around me. I want everybody to tell me the truth, even if it costs them their jobs" Samuel Goldwyn

As the 1990s have progressed, more and more employees who used to love their jobs have joined the ranks of the frustrated, angry, overworked, burned out, anxious or depressed. Morale is down, and people just don‘t enjoy coming to work any more. They feel burned out, overloaded, short of time, and unable to keep up with the information explosion. They are tired of the demand to do everything faster, and anxious about losing their jobs. And they’re afraid that they haven‘t yet seen the worst.

Increasing employee dissatisfaction is just one sign of a growing need for a new kind of leadership. Other changes leave companies no choice but to rethink the demands of leadership. Most companies now have a horizontal rather than a vertical structure. Employees are more empowered to make decisions than ever before, but they also have heavier work loads, more time pressure, the demand for constant learning and a faster pace of change to deal with than ever before. Today’s leaders must know how to motivate employees to sustain peak levels of performance, with a constant eye to sustaining quality. They must know how to bolster team spirit and nurture open communication. And they must do all this in the midst of growing job insecurity at all levels of the organization.

Leaders today must recognize the strong desire of an educated work force to have work that they enjoy doing. The resistance often encountered to the idea of making work enjoyable is surprising, since any corporate culture that enables people to feel good while they’re doing their work increases the odds that employees will take pride in their work, be committed to quality, and do whatever it takes to help the team get the job done. Leaders must also know how to identify and develop resilient employees who can perform well in a demanding work environment. In the future, successful companies will increasingly be companies with resilient employees.

All of these considerations have supported the trend to put humor to work. To the great surprise of many CEOs, helping employees lighten up on the job has boosted productivity at the same time that it has provided an invaluable skill in coping with ever-increasing levels of job stress. While humor and fun are generally not mentioned in the context of Total Quality Management, they are essential to getting employees to "internalize" the commitment to quality. When the majority of employees love their jobs and have fun doing them, the motivation to provide quality comes from within.

At the top levels, of course, leadership involves the development and application of the basic values and philosophy of the company. Other articles in this newsletter include numerous examples of CEOs who have become convinced of the value of humor and fun on the job, and their organizations reflect this value. The employees in these companies generally enjoy their work, and the CEOs believe this is crucial to maximizing productivity and quality.

According to the CEO of Rosenbluth International, Hal Rosenbluth, it is "almost inhumane if companies create a climate where people can’t naturally have fun . . . Our role and responsibility as leaders and associates is to create a place where people can enjoy themselves. I know our company is doing well when I walk around and hear people laughing."1

In the early 1960s, President Kennedy created a bold vision for people to work toward when he said that the United States would land a man on the moon and safely return him to Earth before the end of the decade. There was no technology available to do this at the time, but his commitment made it happen. My own belief is that companies today need to make the same kind of commitment to finding ways to make work enjoyable, if they want to survive and thrive in the 21st century.


1. LaBarre, P. Lighten up! Blurring the line between fun and work not only humanizes organizations, but strengthens the bottom line. Industry Week, Feb. 5, 1996, p. 53.

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