Elizabethan poet and playwright Francis Bacon once said, "Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not, a sense of humor for what he is."

Recently I was at a meeting of fellow Inc. 5000 company owners who periodically meet to share, dialogue, and solve business conundrums together. I found myself laughing uproariously there. It got me thinking about humor and business ownership.

I harked back to a column I read last year by Jacquelyn Smith of Forbes. Smith pointed to a survey done by Robert Half International which showed 91% of executives found humor imperative for career advancement and 84% found people with a sense of humor do better work.

There are several reasons humor can be a powerful business tool. Here are some I especially esteem.

  1. Humor creates mindfulness, perspective, and balance. If laughter is a part of you and your company's life, it reduces anus clinching anxiety and fear. It relaxes you. For example, Dr. Julia Wilkins cites an experiment using episodes of Seinfeld to measure tolerance to pain thresholds. After viewing a Seinfeld video, results showed pain tolerance to be much higher. The process of laughter caused a serotonin release similar to aerobic exercise. Laughter causes you to breather deeper. You feel better.
  2. Humor builds culture. Laughter promotes a sense of unity and shared culture. It boosts comraderie. It builds corporate empathy.
  3. Humor facilitates creativity. Laughter opens you to the absurd and the impossible. It encourages playing with concepts, taking risks, and considering the outrageous.
  4. Humor humanizes leaders. It nurtures a sense of "we are all in this together." It can be a key component of empathetic leadership.

Humor is great within your own firm, but I find healthy leadership needs a home for humor outside the confined community of my own company. Certainly joining a convivial, discreet organization of your peers gives an outlet for letting your hair down and being yourself in all your profound non-rationality.

Free flowing silliness and laughter is not the easiest thing to come by for a business owner. It is not necessarily prudent to share all your uncensored business mind with your employees or your clients or the world at large. Yet the successful entrepreneurs I know are remarkably funny people. Often wickedly funny. (You can find it at places like the upcoming Inc. GrowCo, as well as places like Vistage, EO, Conscious Capitalism, Small Giants, among others.)

The role of leading a small business can be a lonely enterprise. (I wrote about this last year in this column.) ( "The Peculiar Loneliness of Entrepreneurship".) No one but another entrepreneur can fully understand the special frisson of fear and excitement each day holds for the high-risk small business striver. It is an infinitely not boring experience. Yet it is not something that you can truly share in its unfettered joy and horror even with your wife. To try to talk about your daily trials and tribulations would load an unnecessary burden on your intimates and, really, to what point? It's cryptic to anyone who is not living in it. Each of our businesses is unique and peculiar, but the business ocean we swim in is common to all of us.

A place of real safety to talk openly with very smart colleagues is great. I find myself relaxing with an almost palpable emotional sigh when I enter a meeting of my peers. And humor is frequently a predominant mode of sharing in peer business communities. A lot of the humor is mordant and dark, but it comes from an ambient sense of relief at being in a safe harbor, a non-darwinian grotto of relief from the sturris of a darwinian world. There is a glow of irenic happiness in being with one's own kind--one's own little supportive ghetto.

This may not be a particularly profound thought, but participation in a safe, outside personal business community of peers is surely healthful for the mindful business psyche. And the release of business anxiety and uncertainty through humor often frees up the animal spirits and the playfulness from whence cometh innovation and ideas.

Psychologist and philosopher William James said, "Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is common sense, dancing." Thank you, William.