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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™


Leading with “Passion Power”:  The Art and Science of

“Motivational Humor” – Part III


The first two segments of this three-part series on “Leading with Passion Power” outlined a 2x2 matrix model comprised of two polar variables:  “Cognitive-Affective” (Informational Mode) and “Gravitas-Comedia” (Motivational Mood).  The interaction yields “The Four ‘P’s of Passion Power – being Purposeful-Provocative-Passionate-Playful.”  The definitions and illustrations of these terms (see Part II) are often “out of the box.”  The model clarifies why and how a multifaceted and integrated Four “P” leader brings uncommon “Personal Energy, Professional Creativity and Organizational Synergy” to his or her:  a) leadership roles and relations, b) use of resources and c) individual- and team-oriented results.  Now, Part III will explore in depth the interaction of the “Affective and Comedia” mode-mood dimensions, especially how being “Playful” becomes the play-ground for “humor.”  More specifically, here are skills and strategies that will enable a leader to add healing, energizing and inspiring humor to his “Passion Power” repertoire. 

Humor vs. Wit 

From my perspective, a Four “P” Leader who knows how to purposefully, provocatively and passionately play is a “Motivational Humorist.”  (And if you add a psychological bent, then this person is approaching my trademarked label; he or she is becoming a “Psychohumorist” ™.  Of course, I always let the audience decide where the emphasis on this word should go.)  As will become abundantly clear, there is a tangible link between using humor as an educational and motivational tool and leadership effectiveness.  Let me define humor, contrast humor and wit, and then illustrate healing humor’s functions and interdependent connection with laughing, learning and leading. 

“Humor (is) the recognition and expression of the incongruities and peculiarities in a situation or conduct.”  A capacity for humor often reveals an ability to appreciate and comically convey life’s absurdities, to poke (mostly) gentle fun at others and also, especially, to laugh at our own flaws and foibles.  Being emotive, expressive and self-effacing highlight key points of difference with the highly cognitive concept of “wit.”  As was noted in Part II, wit is the quick recognition and clever expression of the unexpected similarities or analogies between things seemingly unlike or contradictory.  Wit often has a sharp, razor edge; in contrast, humor, especially healing humor, is kindler and gentler.  Wit is concise and highly verbal while humor often has an unfolding and exaggerated, if not silly, non-verbal component.  For example, think Charlie Chaplin or the Marx Brothers, though Groucho often integrated both clever one-liners that deflated the pompous while strutting about in an oversized tux and chomping on an outlandish cigar.  In extremis, humor can become ridiculous while wit can cut with ridicule.  Here’s a quick distinguishing visual:  humor is letting the air out of a balloon and having it spin wildly about; wit is more akin to suddenly sticking a pin in the balloon. 

Functions of Healing Humor 

Within the “Playful” dimension, our focus is on the essence of healing humor:  a) turning on good biochemistry, b) opening and freeing one’s mental processing, and c) accepting one’s self and the other through knowing laughter.  Healing is an apt term, as science discovers how humor and laughter have powerful implications for optimal mind-body functioning.  In addition, there is a definite motivational method to madness both tempered and transformed by mirth.  Drawing on content from my book, Practice Safe Stress:  Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout & Depression, let’s examine some key chemical-emotional-cognitive functions of humor as it relates to stress and leadership: 

1.  Turning on the Good Chemistry.  We all know that there are palpable physical manifestations of the human stress response – including a racing pulse and accelerated heart rate.  Well, guess what?  Laughter is a natural antidote to stress as it actually reduces your heart rate, thus slowing your pulse and counteracting other secondary stress symptoms before they have a chance to do too much damage!  At a physiological level, full-throttle laughter gives your facial muscles and your cardio-respiratory-musculo-skeletal systems a workout, including raising endorphin and dopamine levels.  These chemicals are the mind-body’s natural pain relievers as well as mood and pleasure enhancers. 

Actually, vigorous laughter has been described as “inner jogging.”  With a bit more literary juice, Dr. William Fry, a pioneer in the study of the broad physiological effects of laughter (see his Sweet Madness: A Study of Humor, 1982) likens laughing with gusto to turning your body into a big vibrator giving those vital organs a brief but hearty internal massage!  Two minutes of belly laughter is the endorphin equivalent of ten minutes on the rowing machine. 

2.  Self-Effacing and Self-Affirming Function.  Higher power humor involves more than the chuckle or guffaw.  Its laughter loosens your emotional defenses.  After the physiological reaction there often is psychological insight.  You eventually go from “Ha-ha” to “Aha!” (See below.)  For example, upon turning seventy-five, a French dramatist and poet, Edmund Rostand, gazing into a mirror, opined:  “Mirrors just aren’t what they used to be!”  Rostand’s reframe is not just a change in perspective; it likely reflects an expansive sense of self. 

Courageous and playful defiance often capture the healing and harmonizing spirit of humor.  You don’t have to take yourself so seriously.  An ability to face our flaws and foibles, even our mortality, with a light if not an enlightened heart is not just a sign of maturity.  It truly reflects wisdom and psychological wholeness. 

3.  Generating and Grasping Humor/Wit-Creativity Connection.  And speaking of wholeness, humor and laughter also seem to stimulate imaginative flow.  Noted 20th century political philosopher and author, Arthur Koestler, ingeniously observed this relation between humor and creativity in his major work, The Act of Creation.  Koestler gleaned the mental and vocal connections among art appreciation, scientific discovery, and humor.  In each of these cognitive undertakings, we connect two or more seemingly unrelated or contradictory ideas and elements and suddenly “get it.”  With art, we say “Ah,” in science, “Aha!” and when we laugh, it’s “Ha-ha.”   (Do you recall Mark Twain’s marvelous conception of “wit”?  Wit is the sudden marriage of ideas which before their union were not perceived to have any relation.) 

4.  Opening and Freeing Minds.  Going beyond the vocal and philosophical, some research suggests that humor may be a catalyst for innovative problem solving.  In the 1980s, Dr. Alice Isen, a psychologist at the University of Maryland, found that people who had just watched a short comedy video of television bloopers were better able to find a creative solution to a puzzling problem than subjects who had exercised, or people who had watched a video about math (zzzzz!). 

Humor seems to energize the right side of the brain, allowing us to think more broadly, to make complex connections, and to exaggerate ideas and events, thereby allowing us to capture or construct elusive relationships.  And because laughter both relaxes and frees the mind-body, it is my belief that “people are more open to a serious message when it is gift-wrapped with humor.” 


Laughing, Learning and Leading or The War Zone-Rubber Ducky Intervention 

A “Higher Power Humor” and “Passion Power” leader has a sense of play that doesn’t lose sight of her own or other’s humanity.  She has a compassionate understanding of perplexing and incongruous human nature, along with our being all too imperfect and inconsistent creatures.  And a sense of absurdity that comes out to play and laugh even in the face of stress or danger can help people accept flaws and foibles while affirming both their vulnerable and vital natures.  Playful surprise may even gently cajole others to bridge differences and to risk engaging the impractical or the unknown. 

Consider this example of a leader who was determined to play, even under the most trying conditions, in order to:  a) reduce the stress-fueled sniping among his charges, b) bolster morale, and c) inject fun and healing humor and strengthen the belief in a “we’re all in this together” community.  During one of my workshops, a State Department manager shared the following scenario.  He had been stationed at the American Embassy in Kuwait in 1990 as war clouds were gathering in darkness and intensity.  Not surprisingly, tension in the embassy was rising daily.  Being restricted to the compound was exacerbating stress levels in a war-zone.  The Ambassador decided to intervene before the internal grumbling and sniping eroded psychological coping, team cooperation and organizational morale.  He told his second-in-command to inform personnel that the next day was a holiday and that all embassy staff would be going to the beach. 

His deputy, incredulous, protested:  “Sir, a war could break out any moment.  It’s not safe to leave the compound!”  The Ambassador, nevertheless, reaffirmed his desire to have people ready to go to the beach the next morning. 

Bright and early the next day the Ambassador descended the stairs in bathing trunks and robe while carrying a blowup rubber ducky.  Most personnel were not similarly attired.  “Ye of little faith,” declared the Ambassador and proceeded to march everyone outside.  And lo and behold, during the night, somehow, this Ambassador had managed to have tons of sand trucked in and dumped in the compound.  And staff had a tension-relieving, fun-filled day at the beach.  The in-house stress siege was broken; the embassy personnel regrouped their individual and group resources and professionally weathered the war storm. 

Strategic Points. Defying outmoded conventions or rules, whether in relation to an external enemy or, when critical, even regarding departmental protocol and procedures is a key weapon in the “Passion Power” leader’s playful bag of tricks.  When an authority figure is both brave and purposefully or provocatively playful in the face of threat or bureaucratic rigidity, the role-modeling and morale-building effect is often contagious.  Add some visual props and others can come out of their battle shells and play.  A daring director just may transform a “theater of war” into the “theater of the absurd.”  And team rejuvenation, not just tension relief, may be your final reward. 

Let’s allow the father of psychoanalysis to have the closing words on the relation of hazard and humor.  Sigmund Freud was a student of humor and wit’s relation to conscious and unconscious coping.  Freud extolled philosophical humor as the most mature or “highest” defense mechanism, that is, such humor facilitates self-protection without self-constriction or hostile attack.  Such higher power humor (or “healing humor”) is based on having internalized parental encouragement of your efforts and gentle tolerance of your failures.  Of course, not all of us were so fortunate with those childhood internalizations.  The evolutionary goal then becomes generating a mix of compassionate and courageous and, even, a bit outrageous mentors and role models along with embracing trial and error learning.  And once experiencing sufficient reward for taking risk, you are in position to extol Herr Freud’s ringing declaration:  “Look here!  This is all this seemingly dangerous world amounts to.  Child’s play – the very thing to jest about.”  Seems like our Ambassador might have made a good Freudian analyst in addition to a Four “P” – “Purposeful-Provocative-Passionate-Playful” – Leader! 

On Becoming a Motivational Humorist 

So what enables a person to become a motivational and healing humorist?   Consider these characteristics: 

1.  A Paradoxical Perspective.  First is an appreciation for the paradoxical.  We’ve already examined Freud’s belief in humor’s ability to transmute powerful adversity into playful absurdity, as well as Mark Twain’s and Arthur Koestler’s linkage of wit and laughter and unexpected cognitive connection.  Now consider the take of that comic genius, Charlie Chaplin, on the surprising interdependence between the comic and tragic:  “A paradoxical thing about making comedy is that it is precisely the tragic which arouses the funny.  We have to laugh due to our helplessness in the faces of natural forces…and in order not to go crazy.” 

An ability to laugh at our absurdities or seemingly helpless condition makes it easier to accept our own fears, flaws and foibles; we are not alone in our frenzy.  For example, right after 9/11, when airport lines were creating serious customer stress, Baltimore-Washington International Airport hired actors to play costumed comic figures, such as Groucho Marx – (and as previously noted) in tails, with a crouched walk, leering eyes, and waving an oversized cigar – to banter with folks, so that a sense of the absurd could reduce if not replace anxiety or frustration.  Two complementary quotes illuminate the powerful interplay between fear and focus, laughter and psychological freedom, that is, how the lunacy of Marxism could beat the threat of bin Ladenism:

Psychiatrist Ernst Kris:  “What was once feared and is now mastered is laughed at.”  And the Stress Doc’s inversion:  “What was once feared and is now laughed at is no longer a master!” 

2.  Comfort with Some Craziness, Defiance and Imperfection.  If a person can blend a touch of personal silliness or wackiness, an appreciation for the ridiculous or contradiction, a willingness to tweak or tickle a rigid or unresponsive system, and an ability for verbal and nonverbal absurdity (think of the Rubber Ducky Ambassador), while being comfortable with neurosis and/or imperfection he or she has definite potential as a healing humorist. In other words, a leader doesn’t only come in the “strong silent type” variety as often packaged by Hollywood.  As I like to

say, “Strong silent types usually get a lot more ulcers than Oscars!” 

3.  Harmony Over Hostility.  Such a humorist must also avoid “hostile humor”:  when a person inflates their self-worth or covers up inadequacies with “scarcasm,” that is, ridiculing or demonizing others and reveling in their so-called outcast, incompetent or inferior status.  However, a leader must decisively set limits on a stress carrier starting to infect the vitality and harmony of the larger team or community.  And often there’s a fine line separating harmony and hostility…and a too clever line may propel you over the edge.


When Emerson Trumped Empathy


Here’s a vignette pitting me against a demonizing antagonist that raises a key question:  Did my counterpunch find the best balance between harmony and hostility?  I was leading a two-day Stress Management workshop in Salt Lake City, Utah for a federal government agency that was experiencing interpersonal tension and morale problems.  The first day seemed to go well.  The most tangible evidence was that the next morning a few folks initiated buying donuts for all forty participants.  So a variety of donuts were being distributed before the class formally starts.  All of a sudden, a male audience member, who later identified himself as a Mormon, began vehemently protesting:  “You call yourself a stress expert, and you’re going to allow them to pass out those donuts; with all that fat and sugar!”


I was taken aback.  I acknowledged his beliefs and his concern for the nutritional issues as regards physical and psychological well-being.  (A few years earlier, for a legal magazine, I had written about changing my diet and exercise regimen.  I always liked the title of the article: “Hard Realities vs. Hard Arteries:  Fat Food for Thought.”)  Before I could finish, our pedantic protester cut me off, continued the challenge, and then declared:  “How can I trust anything you say about stress, when you take such a hypocritical position!”  Trying to be reasonable, again agreeing with some of his concerns, still I recognized the buying and sharing of donuts as a real form of social nurturance and support.  Both of these are important for relieving stress and building emotional health and group morale.


Our nutritional moralist seemed undaunted.  I also realized that this ongoing confrontation was agitating the entire group, though no one said anything.  I didn’t want to lose control of the atmosphere of positive learning and sharing, nor did I want the audience to lose trust in my capacity for leadership.  The tension reached a critical point.  I reflexively went into a self-effacing survival mode and replied with maybe a shade too much impatience and irony:  “Well, I guess the only way I can justify my behavior is to paraphrase the American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson:  ‘[Too much] consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.’”


A woman from the audience fairly shouted, “That’s a good one.”  The confrontational standoff was over.  My antagonist was disarmed and deflated.  At the time, I mostly thought I was poking fun at myself to get Mr. Moralist off my (and the audience’s) back.  But in hindsight, I wasn’t simply self-lampooning, but was also wielding a witty (albeit unconscious) weapon.


Today, when I share this story with counselors, educators, or trainers, a number gasp, groan, or grimace.  I truly did cut down Mr. Mormon in public.  I was not psychologically correct, for which I have conflicting thoughts.  And yet, in the spirit of embracing contradiction, my counter ultimately had a healing effect.  By the afternoon, Mr. M. could venture out of his crusty shell, this time without fighting dietary demons or Stress Docs.  With the help of a group exercise, he began to acknowledge his intense feelings of work burnout.  This out of character level of honesty and vulnerability was made possible by disarming his previous offensive defensiveness.  And it garnered him, not the moral high ground, but down-to-earth emotional sustenance and problem-solving support from colleagues (who had been inhaling his burnout fumes for months). 


The moral:  By momentarily disarming an antagonist while still pursuing understanding and healing along with a zest for contradiction, you can set limits on while also supporting a “stress carrier.”  By mixing caring and confrontation...you can even (symbolically or moderately) eat donuts!  And most important, the competence of the leader, the working harmony of the group and the humanity and standing of the participant are reaffirmed. 

4.  Sensitive and Tough Skinned, Neither “Black or White” Minded.  Clearly, a motivational leader must be sensitive to people’s pain and show healthy tolerance for feedback and conflict.  This individual will help others move beyond all-or-none posturing:  to appreciate or discover the humorous in the serious and to cleverly yet compassionately challenge others to go beyond simplistic “right vs. wrong” thinking.  For me, a New Yorker cartoon forever embedded the dangers of rigid “all or none” or “black or white” thinking.  A pompous-looking publisher standing behind his power desk begins to chastise a humbly dressed, hat-in-hand Charles Dickens:  “Really, Mr. Dickens…was it the best of times or was it the worst of times?  It could scarcely have been both!” 

Even in trying times, a motivational humorist helps people to see the glass as half empty and half full (one way being, of course, to look for the lipstick stains).  Such a leader is also transformational, turning a “gripe session” into a “grape session.”  He or she encourages others to get their frustrations on the table and to purposefully and playfully pound them in public.  (For example, recall our “Rubber Ducky” Ambassador.)  And once sufficient juice has been squeezed, and necessary fermenting time allowed, when even sour grapes may well discover a touch of lightness or sweetness (think moral Mormon), then perhaps all can harvest the fruits of their labor, learning and laughter. 

Making Motivational Humor Work 

The keys to the successful use of motivational humor in a team, division or entire organization – let’s call it a mirthful “Mission Improbable” – involve setting limits on dysfunctional disrupters while strengthening mutual understanding, shared tension relief and enjoyment. Also vital is finding the pass in the impasse as well as collaborative conflict resolution among diverse and often competing people.  Surely, these are critical objectives in our always on, “do more with less” and increasingly territorial “survivor” climate. 

The bottom line:  dispense and encourage positive humor amongst the troops!  Of course, sometimes easier said then done.  There often is a fine line if not a fine art to consciously distinguishing between “healing vs. hostile” humor, or not turning “harmonizing” humor into the “humiliating” variety.  That’s why savvy and self-aware humorists are needed, especially in these rapidly upgrading and downsizing, unpredictably traumatic, and predictably absurd times, to foster employee resilience and bolster organizational productivity and morale.  In summary, learn to blend:  1) A Paradoxical Perspective, 2) Comfort with Some Craziness, Defiance and Imperfection, 3) Harmony Over Hostility and 4) Sensitive and Tough Skinned, Neither “Black or White” Minded.  And voila!  You now have a four-part recipe for serious and luminous lunacy and leadership, that is, for becoming a “Motivational Humorist.” 

Humor-Human-Higher Power Connection 

While I have tried to argue the playful, universal and critical value of humor, not all would agree with this position.  I’m reminded of a syndicated Pogo cartoon.  Pogo and his somewhat cynical catfish friend Porky are lazily boating down an unspoiled, scenic river.  Porky is crediting God for a job well done…except for one thing.  Porky exclaims, “It is jes too bad he didn’t knock off a day earlier when he was ahead.” 

Trying to dissuade the catfish of his misanthropic attitude, Pogo claims, “If it weren’t for human beans life wouldn’t have as many laughs.” 

Porky’s instant reply:  “It wouldn’t need as many.” 

Being all too human – whether leader or learner, speaker or student – we need the laughs. 

One of the world's great humanitarians, the undaunted perceptual trailblazer, Helen Keller, beautifully captured the universal motivation in, if you will, a humor mission statement: 

The world is so full of care and sorrow that it is a gracious debt we owe to one another
            to discover the bright crystals of delight in somber circumstances and irksome tasks.

Finally, the comic genius, Charlie Chaplin’s powerful explanation also bears repeating: 

The paradoxical thing in making comedy is the tragic is precisely what arouses
the funny.  We have to laugh due to our helplessness in the face of natural
forces and (in order) not to go crazy. 

And speaking of powerful forces and the forces for powerful leading and speaking…seek the higher power and “passion power” of humor:  May the Force and Farce Be with You!


Mark Gorkin, LICSW, “The Stress Doc” ™, is a keynote and kickoff speaker, training/OD & team building consultant, psychotherapist and “Motivational Humorist.”  He is the author Practice Safe Stress:  Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout & Depression and The Four Faces of Anger:  Transforming Anger, Rage, and Conflict into Inspiring Attitude & Behavior.  The Doc is AOL’s “Online Psychohumorist” ™ and pioneer of a USA Today Online “HotSite” www.stressdoc.com – recognized as a “workplace resource” by National Public Radio (NPR).  For more info on the Doc’s speaking and training programs, email stressdoc@aol.com or call 301-946-0865.