Leading Through Adversity: The Transformative Power of Humor

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Written By: Brendan P. Keegan, Chairman, CEO & President

Brendan P. Keegan Dressed Up Like a Leprechaun for St. Patrick's DayMarch was a very important time for Merchants Fleet. And, I’m not just saying that because the world went into their homes, and we were faced with the first pandemic in over 100 years. No, March was a big month for Merchants because we were in the midst of completing our capital raise and bringing on Bain Capital Credit as our growth financing partner—a 9-month intensive effort that was finally coming to a close. We were set to close on Friday, March 13th, and we were ecstatic that at 11:00 am that morning, the deal was complete, and Bain Capital Credit was officially our partner and would help fuel our company growth and the growth for our clients.

That afternoon, I looked over at our CFO, Jerry Pavelich. We both picked our heads up and just when we thought we could take a breath, the COVID-19 pandemic was becoming increasingly problematic. That weekend was when everything changed, and governments were accelerating their plans for stay-at-home orders. We had a task force that was focused on monitoring the pandemic for quite some time. And so, despite the fact that we had an all-company, in-person meeting scheduled for March 17th to celebrate the growth financing close and share the good news with our employees, our clients, and the world, we quickly pivoted—a word that has become a norm in 2020—and sent our employees home to work.

As a leader, I pride myself on removing the fear from those I lead. I talk about this monthly in my Fearless Leadership newsletter. In that moment, I realized that this would not be the time to share the good financing news—with all the news about the pandemic, we were not sure that anyone would hear it. Second, I was seeing how people were growing scared about what the pandemic might mean for their work, families, and safety. Instead of announcing the good news on March 17th, we instead announced that we would be moving to an almost fully remote workforce for the foreseeable future.

On Saint Patrick’s Day this year, I pulled out the Tough Times Playbook, a series of plays that I developed through the last few crises I have had the opportunity to lead and thrive through. I spoke about that playbook in a previous video series. But what you may not have seen in that video series is that there is one very important mindset to leverage through adversity and tough times—that’s the power of humor. We executed the plays of the playbook and that morning I executed play 1: “Don’t Hide, Be Transparent”.

So, that morning, I met with our HR leader and marketing leader and neither of them could believe that I walked into the office with a leprechaun outfit and a ridiculous hat. “You’re really going to lead this Zoom meeting like this?”

“Yes, I really am.”

When the Zoom cameras turned on and it was finally time to go, the reactions were priceless. Despite the fact that employees may have been concerned about their families, their jobs, and their safety…they laughed. Anyone who has experienced a big belly laugh knows how transformative that can be to remove fear and bring us to a better state of mind.

“Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!”

From that point forward, I’m not sure it mattered what else I would say. The employees were more at-ease, and they felt like the leadership team had their safety & health in mind—employees first. I went on to explain the Tough Times Playbook and how we were supremely focused on their health and safety and that we would continue to keep them informed, which we did.

However, this article is about the power of humor and hopefully in that moment you got to see how humor set the stage while many might have been worried. It is during those most challenging times that I bring out the right balance of humor, and there are many reasons for that.

In my time prior to serving as the CEO of Merchants Fleet, I served as a turnaround executive on behalf of private equity companies. I would go into companies that were failing, sometimes losing millions of dollars of cash a month, and I would work with the teams to turn the companies around and bring them back to profit. Most people thought I went in and took care of the financials first. That was certainly part of it. But actually, my first focus was often the employees. In order to follow my lead and buy in to new initiatives, I had to win their hearts and minds. And often, I would do that by keeping it light. They knew the company was struggling—they didn’t need constant reminders of that. So, I would often bring humor into the environment. One time, I hired a high school band and cheerleaders and had them parade around to really lighten the mood!

Even if you feel like you’re not a comedian, it doesn’t mean you can’t be funny and silly—in the right setting. Of course, if you ask anyone on my team or the company for that matter, I am serious when I have to be. But on the flip side of that, there are times when getting the group to chill out could be the best thing to get everyone thinking clearly and performing exceptionally well.

Humor can be a great strategy to lead and drive transformational change and positive culture, even in the tough times. If you are looking for a lever, keep reading.

It’s Proven That Humor Can Support Positive Culture

Studies have shown that having a good sense of humor can improve leadership. One such study by the Bell Leadership Institute discovered that the words “sense of humor” and “work ethic” were referenced two times as much as any other phrase when 2,700 employees described their leaders. So, clearly, work ethic is important, too, but humor is its close friend. Also in the study, the best leaders used humor to “spark enthusiasm”, “increase productivity”, “highlight the positive/lighter side of situations”, and more.

By being a leader with a sense of humor, culture and performance has been shown to improve. By removing that fear, it creates an opportunity for people to shine and achieve their potential. One study shows the impact of humor on careers. There are actually courses in humor in business, such as this course at Stanford University.

What we are saying here is that humor has been proven by science to be a supporter of culture and careers. In my experience, I have seen that to be true time and time again.

Go with What You Know

Brendan P. Keegan with a Money Gun During a PresentationIf you want to bring humor into your leadership, start with what you know. I’ll give you an example here of what that means for me. In 2019, we launched our innovation department, and specifically our Innovation Coaches Academy. 15 leaders across the company were trained on innovation skills to become innovation coaches across the company. The pinnacle of that program was the end presentations. Each group would present their new business pilot idea to the executive team through our FleetTank event. For some of those people, I recognized that they might be nervous to present their idea to the leadership team. Presenting can be scary! I saw this as a great opportunity to bring some humor.

So, what did I do? I made a quick trip over to Target, got a money gun and a bunch of 100 Grand candy bars, and I came into the room with my money gun, cool sunglasses and Shark Tank suit on. When I walked in, I shot some money into the room. The place lit up, the tension in the room diffused, and the presentations were spectacular.

What do I mean about “Go with What You Know”? It means that you should tap into your interests, your habits, and pull humor from there. For me, in my free time I used to coach youth sports. When you coach youth sports, you’ve got to be a little silly. I would show up to practices with special outfits, I would play loud music, and I would get the kids fired up—with some humor. For you, you might like movies or music or comedy. Pull from those interests when you lead with humor.

Recognize When It’s the Right Time

Trust me, humor isn’t always the right strategy, so you have to know when to bring it in and when to park it. It can be a risk, which Harvard Business Review discussed in a study on when humor can be good or not appropriate. We’ve all had one of those joke failures! From time to time, I have CEOs reach out to me for advice on how to lead their organizations. This year, I have received several calls specifically with how to lead through COVID-19. One particular company, a last-mile delivery company, was dealing with some challenges when it came to safety for their drivers and customers. My recommendation for them was to take a very empathetic and serious approach, and to show their drivers and customers how much they cared about them. When it comes to safety, that should be taken very seriously.

So, for you, you have to weigh the balance of humor in tough times. Sometimes, it helps. Sometimes, it can be ill-timed. My recommendation is to seek the advice of someone you trust. For me, I had my wife and kids approve my outfit before I went out to share the news on March 17th. Having a trusted confidante is something I would recommend—someone who will really tell you yes or no.

Authenticity in the Tough Times

In the tough times, like I’ve said before, humor can be a great tool. I probably use it more than most leaders would expect. But I find that even in some of the darkest times, there can be something to smile about. For instance, in the pandemic, we found great humor in Zoom calls—some of the ridiculous faces we would make on those Zoom calls! We held virtual hangouts where we actually had our employees show their own comedy skills. We have some tremendously talented people here at Merchants!

So, don’t doubt yourself as a leader. Having some fun and some light humor can diffuse the fear in a room and allow the people that you lead to actually hear you more. It has worked here at Merchants, and we are having one of the best years ever—because of our people, and a little fun.

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