Leadership: Learn to laugh through good, bad

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Sean Meenagh
  • 3rd Aerospace Medical Squadron superintendant
I was born in New York. I was raised by an Irish cop, and went to Catholic School. I have four sisters and one brother.

Sounds like a stereotypical Irish Catholic family and it is. We yelled, prayed and laughed a lot in my family.

The yelling was because there were eight of us. The praying because my parents had six children (I believe my mother did most of that praying). Moreover, we laughed a lot, because it came very natural in my family.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love to laugh. However, I never realized how important laughing was until August 1999. You see, I had to go home on emergency leave that August because my mother lay on her death bed. I flew home, was picked up by my brother and went straight to the hospital.

Upon arriving at the hospital, I learned the simple rule of the Intensive Care Unit; no more than two family members at a time in the room with my mother. While the one or two of us were visiting with that wonderful lady, the rest of her family was in the waiting room. We would go in and out every so often. The person or persons returning to the waiting room would be crying as you might expect, while the rest of us were reminiscing about "remember when this happened or when that happened." We would laugh and laugh about the memories. The laughing never bothered the family member who just returned from visiting with my mother. They would sit there, compose themselves for a few minutes, and the get back into the conversation. This went on for four days.

While examining my conscience each night after returning home from the hospital, I would sit there and say, "How can we be laughing at a time like this?" I finally realized that laughter is a gift from God. I believe that God placed my mother's bed right by the wall of the ICU waiting room so she could hear the laughter of her husband of 54 years, her children and her grandchildren. What better way to leave this world then to know that you raised a loving and happy family?

I also believe that laughter fits right into leadership. I saw it in the leadership of my father and mother all my life, as well as many of my mentors throughout my Air Force career.

We cherish the ideal of having a sense of humor in America. At the same time, we're highly suspicious of anything non serious. We are living in challenging and serious times today. We must laugh just as I did when my mother was dying.

Choosing the humor is another matter. We live an era of the put-down, the snide remarks, and the unruly comeback. These comments don't have a place in our Air Force, because they make us laugh at someone else's expense. Good, nourishing humor enables us to laugh at ourselves for being human.

Dwight D. Eisenhower said, "A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done." So I ask you, who would you rather work for and with: a person who you can laugh with; or a person who is serious and tense all the time?

Humor can even be used at the most tense of times. During the Korean War, Col. Lewis "Chesty" Puller, the most decorated Marine in American history was visiting a hospital tent where a priest was administering last rites to the dying. Then a Marine burst in with an urgent message:

"Sir," said the messenger. "Do you know they have cut us off? We're entirely surrounded."

Colonel Puller replied, "All right, they're on our left. They're on our right. They're in front of us. They're behind us. They cannot get away this time."

That bit of humor might just have given his troops the will to fight harder.

I'm not telling you to be a standup comedian. I'm also not telling you to be a court jester. After all those things don't fit in to our workplaces, nor should they. Humor is a great leadership tool. It will strengthen bonds between co-workers, and create rapport with customers. It will make communications less awkward, thus reducing tension, frustration and anger. Humor will also reduce burnout.

It's good to laugh, and in my eyes, it's necessary. I love this country very much, because we believe we have certain unalienable rights life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Happy people laugh, it's just that simple.

As I heard it said before, "There are only three things that are certain: God, human foolishness, and laughter." There is no way you are going to fully comprehend the first two; so do the best you can with the third -- laughter.

We have a very serious duty and that is to serve each man, woman and child in this great nation of ours. It can be an overwhelming task, very demanding and unfortunately, at times, fatal. I believe that humor and laughter are essential to being a good leader.

Author Joseph J. Mazzella once said, "God gave us this glorious gift of laughter. It would be wrong not to accept it and enjoy it every chance we get." I, for one, totally agree.