Lightness of Being: A Mindset of Goodwill Produces Cognitive Flexibility and Transforms Engineers in
Being a Global Leader is fun. It’s fun because a Global Leader gets to interact and share with other people. Sharing includes bringing a sense of lightheartedness and humor to any situation. Sometimes humor and laughter can clear the most hardened barriers or blockages.
It’s not always easy to find the humor in a difficult situation. When we are full of many complex emotions, it can be awkward to acknowledge those feelings. It's also hard to step to the side and look at a complex situation from a completely new viewpoint. But it is possible to find humor in even the most trying of circumstances.
Mental health experts call this "cognitive flexibility." Experts define cognitive flexibility as the ability to consider multiple aspects of a complex situation at the same time, maintain a "superfluid" presence, and respond in a way that brings out your personal best and the best outcome for the circumstance. Cognitive flexibility allows people to optimize potential.
As a form of cognitive flexibility, humor is best when it adds a new perspective or a new level of wisdom and understanding. Humor is not helpful when it merely deflects the deeper, more intense emotions that might be swirling around at the moment. Humor that is biting or divisive fails to nurture people. That style of humor often just hardens people's barriers and defense mechanisms.
Ultimately, humor can be healing. It can bring people together, allowing them to remove their armor and open more fully into each other. Humor can be the salve that helps heal a deep wound. Humor is a deeply nurturing tool when used in this manner. Healing humor says: I’m not here to hurt you. I’m here to understand you better. I’m here to let you fully into my heart. And even when the situation is filled with tension and strife, I’ll stay by your side until we can work it all out.
Being a Global Leader means being sensitive to opportunities to use humor in unexpected situations or interactions. Many interactions can be funny when looked at from a slightly different angle.
In my work as a management consultant, I tried to use humor at a client workshop to defuse a tense situation. I was working with a consulting team to help our client build a new strategic growth plan. The client company was a firm of software engineers. Some of the senior executives were, admittedly, not good at communicating. And some didn’t find a lot of value in exercises that helped to build a team spirit and a shared sense of the company’s vision and mission.
In fact, during our first meeting with the executive team, the CEO of the company stated that he would go along with most of the consulting team’s suggestions and activities. "But," he said, emphatically, “I don’t want to be singing 'Kumbaya' and eating nuts and berries!” This particular comment didn’t sit well with others on the company's management team and was causing tension within the group. Some people felt the CEO wasn’t being inclusive enough of input from others. So the comment was taken as further evidence that the CEO blocked a more collaborative approach to managing and growing the business.
During one off-site workshop with about 30 executives, managers, and employees, I facilitated a Merlin Exercise to help engage the group in what we consultants call “intergalactic thinking” to help them envision the future business of the company. At the beginning of the exercise, the spirit of Merlin—an alchemist—is invoked to help the group begin to think of ways to transform the current business into the next five years of growth.
Speaking before the group, I explained to them that Merlin had visited me in my dreams the night before and had taken me into the future. I had seen a new business with all of the senior managers in new offices, and everyone was very successful. Two managers were driving new twin-turbo Porches. Another executive was directing international sales and preparing for an upcoming meeting in Europe with hundreds of sales professionals ready to launch a new product.
“And,” I said, “I saw the CEO of the business in a beautiful new office...and you know what he was doing?”
I heard a few mumbles from the group.
“Well, I don’t know how this happened,” I continued. “But in my dream with Merlin I saw the CEO in his office, and he was sitting there with a guitar in his lap, and he was singing 'Kumbaya' and eating out of a big bowl of nuts and berries!”
Everyone broke out laughing, including the CEO. A huge burst of energy swelled from the group. And with that, everyone was quickly sent off in small groups to envision their own version of the future of the company.
This same CEO, who didn’t want to spend time on the nuts and berries (the softer issues of business), led his small group in planning a growth strategy for the company. They created a plan that would within five years use the company's technology to build products that could end all fighting and bring about world peace!
Would the group have come to the same conclusions without the use of humor to remove blockages and release positive energy? Maybe, maybe not.
But the use of humor in this situation certainly helped to release some energy that had been dormant. And it allowed the entire group of workshop participants to move forward with more openness, greater inclusion, and expanded possibility for the future. Everyone was engaging in positive interactions, expressing Global Leadership, and beginning the process of transforming their business into its full potential. As a byproduct of this transformation, people also began expressing their natural human desire to make a difference in the world and become a force for good,