“I’m so old I remember when the Dead Sea was sick”. Not sure which comedian first said it, but as a leader, I have used it numerous times in various situations as part of my job. The term of art is self-deprecating humor, and it is a great tool for those in positions of authority to use for numerous reasons.
Breaking the Ice
First, self-deprecating humor often breaks the ice or tension in the room. Not sure you would want to roll it out in every circumstance in which those factors exist, or if you are in the lowest ranking employee at the venue, but showing a sense of humor and admitting faults, flaws or something as natural as old age are two characteristics that made me feel at ease when I was on the listening end of such humor by three and four star generals. It painted a human side to their perceived cyborg persona. I had a brilliant young Captain who went from being an Intelligence Officer to the Comptroller position at the Wing. The first thing he said to his experienced staff at the introductory meeting is “explain everything to me like I’m a fifth grader”. Right then, I knew we had made a great hire.
Secondly, it provides a release point for the leader to effectively story tell your theme if you are public speaking. I remember listening to the great Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench when we hosted him at the then 184th Intelligence Wing, and he stated at the start of his speech to airmen: “I don’t belong in a room with all of this intelligence”. He then proceeded to talk about his time in the Army Reserves when he was a Cincinnati Red and how much he admired people in the military, especially the ones he was speaking to and what an important mission they had.
Finally, it is the safest form of humor. I had an airman ask me once “why I was always picking on my age, baldness, or inability to do this or that”, in which I replied I enjoyed humor, it is all true, and it is unlikely that I will file an IG complaint against myself. Too many times leaders will attempt a joke or poke fun at another that ends up in at the least a loss of respect or to the other extreme, a loss of a job. Obviously, there is no place for off color or patently offensive humor in the workplace (self-deprecating or not), but comments such as joking about firing people have ended up in lawsuits, even if there was no ill will or malice. Social media amplifies this last rule as we have seen numerous people get in hot water for comments they posted in attempt to be funny.
Read the Room
Knowing the room is often important. Sensitive topics are usually obvious but sometimes are quite nuanced and subjective depending on the listener. As a suggestion, find the most humorless person in your life and test your material. If they laugh, you are ready for live fire; if not self-deprecate about how bad your jokes are.