Want To Be a Great Leader? Act Like a Comedian

When it comes to performing on stage, legendary comedian Steve Martin will tell you to ignore the audience, look over their heads, do anything but look directly at them. The reason is because if you look at the audience you are likely to see people not laughing. This could lead the comedian to make judgments about what the audience is feeling, i.e. they are not enjoying the show because they are not laughing. This may be a logical assumption: the audience is at a comedy show to laugh, they are not laughing, therefore they are not enjoying the show.

The problem with this logic is that it is contingent on the comedian’s judgement of others. Basing what you do and how you feel on your judgement of how others are reacting, or how you think they should be reacting, is a losing proposition, especially in leadership.

Maybe the crowd is being weirdly introspective and thoughtful about what the comedian is saying. Maybe the comedian has struck a cord that has left the audience rapt, but not in a state of laughter. Maybe the vibe of the audience that night is mellow. It doesn’t matter what the reason is that the audience is not laughing, what matters is there may be a reason other than they don’t think the material is funny. If the comedian judges the audience, she may unnecessarily lose momentum, confidence, and the audience.

Just as the comedian plans and rehearses her material and set, leaders make plans and rehearse to achieve selected objectives. The leader ensures that the necessary elements of a plan are accounted for: situation, mission, actions, contingencies, command, communication. When the plan is complete it is time for the leader to get on stage and present the plan to her leadership or team. Just like the comedian, it’s time for the leader to trust the work they’ve put in and deliver a first-rate performance. The leader may come up against raised eyebrows, rolling eyes, frowns, or shaking heads. Ignore it! The reactions don’t matter because the leader has no idea why someone is rolling their eyes or reacting a certain way. It could be for a thousand reasons other than the audience doesn’t like the plan. But more importantly, if the leader begins to judge the reactions of her audience and make assumptions based on her judgements, she is likely to lose momentum, confidence, and the audience, just like the comedian. Once you, as the leader, lose confidence in what you are saying you will lose more than the audience, you’ll lose the trust of the people who have put you in the position to lead, as well as the trust of the people you have been given the privilege to lead. You will also likely lose the opportunity to execute your plan.

Regarding losing your audience, Steve Martin will tell you that the comedian should never acknowledge that he may have lost the audience. Martin goes on to explain that the audience may be on the fence and may not even know that the comedian has lost them yet. Furthermore, the audience certainly cannot know that the comedian thinks he may have lost them. The leader briefing her plan must have the same mindset. On the assumption the work has been done and the leader is putting her best foot forward, there will be ebbs and flows to the reaction of the plan you are briefing. The only part that really matters is the reaction at the end when the leader is given the “GO!” or “NO GO!” by whoever is authorizing the plan. The approving authority may hate your plan, but because you, the leader, did not waiver based on judgements from the crowd’s reaction, trusted your plan and preparation, and delivered with confidence, the plan is still likely to get approved. That’s equivalent to a standing ovation at the end of a comedian’s set, even when the crowd was not hysterically laughing the entire time. According to Steve Martin, it happens. I can also tell you from first hand experience, having someone hate your plan, but still approve it for the right reasons, happens as well.

When it comes to hecklers, Steve Martin recommends not giving them an audience, simply don’t acknowledge them. The crowd, Martin explains, came to see the comedian, not the heckler. Martin goes on that the comedian’s act is not a party filled with overlapping conversations. It is a show and the comedian is in charge. For our analogy, let’s assume the “heckler to the comedian” is “the naysayer to the leader” as the leader’s plan is being executed. There will always be naysayers during the execution of a plan. Why? A lot of reasons. For our purpose of addressing this topic we’ll cover a couple of reasons, but ultimately It doesn’t matter why naysayers are naysayers. That is their issue to work out.

If you want to be a great leader, act like the comedian and ignore the heckler. If, as a leader, you have put in the work to make a thorough and detailed plan you must trust your plan. The leader cannot let the plan be held hostage to the naysayer. The naysayer can take many forms. Perhaps it is someone that is silently, reluctantly, or skeptically following your plan and your lead. The reluctance typically comes from not wanting to be on the wrong side of the operation’s success or failure. For example, this form of naysayer will do specifically what is asked of them and generally, but unenthusiastically, support the operation. This allows them to fall on either side of the success/failure line as they see fit. If the operation is a success, they get to claim the credit they want because they participated. It does not matter to them how they participated; they were there, the operation was a success, therefore they get to reap the benefits.

Conversely, if the operation finds only partial or limited success, the naysayer can claim they knew the operation wouldn’t work. “Couldn’t you tell that’s how I felt? Didn’t you see me not really buying in. It’s not my fault, I knew it wasn’t going to work. But, I did what was asked of me (and not a single thing more).”

The other naysayer is very similar to the one we just described but is more vocal and negative in relaying their thoughts. Of course, what makes them the naysayer is that they overwhelmingly relay their negative thoughts behind the back of the leader. As before, if the operation meets with limited success, the naysayer can claim the, “I told you so mantle.” Likewise, be rest assured this type of naysayer will be an active and vocal part of the celebration when the operation is a success, typically claiming credit where it is not deserved.

The types of leadership challenges we’ve described only come to fruition when there are bold initiatives being undertaken by the leader. The type of initiatives that leave leaders vulnerable to skeptics, naysayers, and hecklers. But real leaders act in-spite of the predictable and insidious players that look to play both sides of the line to their selfish benefit. Show me a leader that is not familiar with the heckler and naysayer and I’ll show you a leader who has never endeavored to do great things or lead people in a grand initiative. These are the leaders that feast on milquetoast initiatives and only show themselves when strategic or tactical outcomes have been all but determined, and then set up camp on that side of the line. That’s not the type of leadership endorsed here, to say the least.

Finally, if this article is dissected with a discerning eye, there are many places where potential leadership theories appear to conflict with one another. I cite Steve Martin recommending the comedian to look past the audience at all costs; but shouldn’t a leader look people in the eye? We discuss how the comedian should ignore, and not judge, the reaction of their audience; but shouldn’t a leader read the room? I advise the leader to trust their work and ignore the hecklers; but shouldn’t the leader be anxious to accept feedback, even if it’s negative?

Consider the context of our discussion: The un-engaged or otherwise concerning expressions of our audience as we present to them. The heckler and naysayer…people by definition who are negative and pessimistic influences, not the objective critic they try to make themselves out to be. Leaders must get past these common challenges by acting like a comedian, trusting their preparation, and seeing it through with confidence, before they move on to issues like reading the room and adjusting the plan based on feedback. Leadership typically becomes a series of progressions broken up into a beginning, middle, and end. For our purposes, consider acting like a comedian when necessary during the various stages of leadership progression.

And one other thing, this is really hard to do…welcome to leadership.

Errol Doebler is the founder of Ice Cold Leader, a leadership consulting firm. After successful careers as a Navy SEAL Platoon Commander and FBI Special Agent, Errol founded Ice Cold Leader to realize his passion of teaching leadership and helping individuals and businesses improve exponentially. Errol provides executive coaching and leadership training to individuals and teams across the United States.

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