When Caught Don't be a "Weiner"

You're probably not sending photos of yourself, in your underwear, to strangers in Seattle, as a US Congressman admitted doing the other day.

It was "part of a joke," he said.

But have you ever said or done something offensive? And then, when people reacted negatively, claimed, "I was just joking."

The head of the NYC school system resignedrecently after a bad joke (plus other mistakes). Overcrowded schools, she joked, could be fixed with birth control.

That joke contributed to a dismal approval rating of 17%.

Sigmund Freud, years ago, wrote a book on jokes. He believed jokes expressed dark impulses, like lust (the congressman's "joke") and aggression (the school chief's).

"Today, I've signed legislation," President Reagan joked, "that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes."

Reagan delivered that line in 1984 while testing a microphonebefore a radio address.

"To lead, you don't need to be funny. You certainly don't need to tell jokes. But it helps to stay calm under pressure." -Consultant, Paul Hellman

It was a terrible joke. Russia certainly didn't giggle. Their army went on alert.

Now consider Reagan's best joke: "Honey, I forgot to duck," a line first used by the boxer Jack Dempsey after losing a fight.

The remarkable thing was not the joke, but Reagan's timing.

The 69th day of his presidency, he'd been shot, and was telling his wife about the assassination attempt. The bullet came within an inch of his heart.

If someone shot me, I'm not sure I'd respond by joking around.

Sometimes, I complain when I have a head cold, or if my back is a little stiff, so I can't see being overly cheerful if there were a bullet lodged near my heart.

Also there's the trauma. Someone shot me! With a gun! At the very least, my feelings would be hurt.

But not Reagan. He refused to take himself or his situation seriously—that's what his humor said. "I hope you're all Republicans," he joked with the surgeons.

Ok, so he wasn't hysterically funny. But the surgeons must have been impressed by his presence.

So was the country—Reagan's approval rating soared to 73%.

Tip: To lead, you don't need to be funny. You certainly don't need to tell jokes. But it helps to stay calm under pressure. And to stay clothed.

Otherwise, you risk becoming a joke.

Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (www.expresspotential.com), Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

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