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Brilliant Leaders Use This Type of Humor (Hint: Think Woody Allen)

Great leaders tend to be funny in a particular way, new research shows.

"They did not take me in the Army. In the event of war, I'm a hostage." --Woody Allen

Most people wouldn't associate the famously self-deprecating director of Annie Hall with inspirational leadership. But maybe they should. Researchers at Seattle University recently presented undergraduates with a series of vignettes in which a company boss introduced a new project manager, Pat, to the team. All the vignettes were structured similarly until it came to the punch line.

The first story ended with the boss saying, "I am so glad that Pat took this job, despite knowing all about us!" The second ended with, "I am so glad that Pat took this job, despite knowing all about you!" The third ended, "I am so glad that Pat took this job, despite knowing all about me!"

Almost categorically, undergraduates rated the boss in the third story--the self-deprecating boss--as a more likable, trustworthy, and caring leader.

The three anecdotes correspond to three different humor styles: group-deprecating, aggressive, and self-deprecating. Project managers who used self-deprecating humor tested highest for transformational leadership, defined by motivational qualities such as likability, trust, individualized consideration, and intellectual stimulation.

Self-deprecating humor enhances perceptions of leadership ability because it tends to minimize status distinctions between leaders and followers.

"Everyone makes mistakes," says study co-author Colette Hoption, a management professor at Seattle University. "Admitting them frankly can help you build solid relationships with your team."

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