Humor in Leadership


Laughter may be one of the best medicines in psychiatry and in leadership—if used correctly.

Humor in psychiatry and leadership

Cheryl Casey/Adobestock


In discussing the stylistic aspects of leadership, as we did in yesterday’s column, the use of humor was not mentioned. That’s not unusual because humor is rarely posited as being of benefit to a leader, but if used at all, used as an aggressive weapon against an opponent.

However, and possibly uniquely, Volodymyr Zelensky had a background as a comedian before his election as president of Ukraine. Perhaps his popularity as a comedian helped him get elected. We do not know how his humor may be used in private nowadays, as he seems quite serious in his public media appearances.

Humor in psychiatry also seems rarely discussed, nor used much in our organizations, research, and clinical care. Helping others seems like a very serious business, and humor can often be misinterpreted. Freud thought humor may be a bad cover and displacement for aggressive and sexual impulses.

Nevertheless, pockets of humor are popping up in unexpected places and via leaders recently. As was first covered in our June 6, 2022, column, “Is a Banana a Better Phallic Symbol Than a Gun?”, humor is making inroads into the rather serious sport of baseball to reduce the boredom factor.

The leader and developer of the Savannah Bananas, a collegiate summer team, decided to try to make the team more exciting and leveraged humor. He always wears a banana yellow tuxedo and top hat, and in it he races 37,900 steps around the stadium. The dancing girls, the Banana Nanas, are in their late 60s. The cheerleading squad, the Man-Nans, is composed of out-of-shape middle-aged men. Currently, they have more TikTok followers than any major league baseball team and sell out every game. I can’t wait to see them “play.”

Also making TikTok news is Dr Glaucomflecken, otherwise named Will Flanary, MD, a young ophthalmologist. His brief skits are satires about the foibles of our medical specialties, including psychiatry, as well as the social and business problems we face in modern medicine.

Recently, as my Yale medical school class celebrated its 50th and 51st graduation anniversaries, the graduates of the current medical school class were told by the dean that she was coming to appreciate the role of humor in medicine. Although humor can be conveyed spontaneously, in an organization it is best carefully considered and controlled for a specific purpose. The benefits can then include perspective-setting, creativity, associative thinking and acknowledging mistakes as well as as a coping mechanism. It is important to obtain feedback from trusted colleagues regarding how humor is received. Ideally, psychiatrists should understand the underlying psychodynamic meanings of jokes and humor, and thereby respond appropriately.

Who was the commencement speaker at Yale? None other than Dr Glaucomflecken. His final piece of advice:

Laugh. Laugh. Tell jokes. Have a sense of humor. Medicine is serious business, but it’s also outrageously funny.

Thinking back to that baseball team, maybe our American Psychiatric Association can form a comparable baseball team call it “Psychiatry’s Society,” and play a fundraising exhibition game against the Savannah Bananas at our next annual meeting!

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. To create a better world, he is an advocate for treating mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times™.

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