Is It Fun Being Led by You?

by  Chip Bell  |  Leadership Development
Is It Fun Being Led by You?

Few American presidents were more fun loving than Theodore Roosevelt. He hunted wild animals in Africa and, as a naturalist, started the U.S. Forestry Service. The Nobel Peace Prize winning president was a championship boxer at Harvard and the author of thirty-eight books. He occasionally skinny-dipped in the Potomac River after a strenuous winter nature walk. On his honeymoon he climbed the Matterhorn. Colonel Roosevelt was also posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism at the Battle of San Juan Hill. Elected at 42, he was our nation’s youngest president.

When he died in 1919, the Vice President of the U.S. announced, “Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight.” But, my favorite quote about Roosevelt came from a New York police captain at Roosevelt’s funeral (Roosevelt had been the NY City Police Commissioner). “It was not only that he was a great man, but, oh, there was such fun in being led by him.”

I have always been a fan of that great question: “Would you buy from you?” It reframes the perspective to focus on how a prospect views you. I offer a similar question to all leaders: “Is it fun being led by you?”

Why Fun is Important Today

The last thirty years of business history have been characterized by giant leaps in quality. We all went to school on how the Japanese transformed a rotten “made in Japan” reputation synonymous with junk into one that represented the pinnacle of zero defects products. We learned the quality lessons of Edward Deming, Joseph Juran, and Phil Crosby as well as the lean thinking lessons of James Womack. We got our black belts in six-sigma; words or acronyms like Kaizen, PDCA, TQM, QC and ISO became everyday parts of our work language.

The benefits were significant. Customers today assume what they buy will be laced in high quality. Mediocre today does not mean just disappointed customers; it spells impending bankruptcy. We have a workforce that has largely embedded quality into the ethos of all production. But we have also reached the outer edges of success through incremental improvements in quality.

Strategy guru Gary Hamel wrote in the Harvard Business Review: “Corporations around the world are reaching the limits of incrementalism. Squeezing another penny out of costs, getting product to market a few weeks earlier, responding to customers’ inquiries a little bit faster, ratcheting quality up one more notch, capturing another point of market share–those are the obsessions of managers today. But pursuing incremental improvements while rivals reinvent the industry is like fiddling while Rome burns.”

Welcome to the era of growth through innovation. And, with it comes the requirement for a work environment focused on reinvention and ingenuity. That new work world requires a playful spirit, a high tolerance for risks, and an observable encouragement of experimentation in the pursuit of a compelling mission. It means leaders must be willing to be sometimes silly not always somber. It requires leaders who are perpetrators of happiness, not carriers of stress. It takes leaders gifted at letting go, turning on, and ramping up. This is not the heyday of the leader as circus clown; it is more the time of leader as circus ringmaster.

Fun Leaders Are Real

When I first met then Southeast Airlines CEO, Herb Kelleher, we were both working the booth at the 1997 BookExpo at Chicago’s McCormick Center. Kevin and Jackie Freiberg’s great book, Nuts! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success, had just been released. The Freibergs had asked me to help with book promotion so Herb and I spent hangout time together. I knew his reputation for being a bit of a wild man. I had also heard stories of his innovative approach to building a culture of employees who loved Southwest, a sentiment that engulfed their customers.

What I learned in the booth was that Herb was completely authentic—what you saw was precisely what you got! His excitement came from a genuinely ecstatic space, not a feature he donned like a mask to attract attention or influence an outcome. And Kelleher’s fun-filled manner communicated all things were possible and all ideas were welcome. You wanted to be in the aura of his captivating joyfulness.

Authenticity creates trust; trust is a must-have ingredient in the risk-taking recipe required for innovation. Albert Einstein wrote, “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.” In a work environment laced with quick critique, intolerance for idiosyncratic ideas, or fidelity to “the way we have always done it,” employees are unlikely to willfully posit absurd ideas. No one wants to be labeled a buffoon or not ready for a higher role or greater opportunity. In a work world of acceptance and trust, there are few barriers to partially baked ideas that could potentially fuel breakthroughs.

Fun Leaders Are Light

I was about to teach the customer segment of a Six Sigma class near Palmdale, CA, for Lockheed Martin. The audience was comprised of leaders from their Skunk Works division—the R&D innovators who focused on air defense 25-30 years out. I was a part of a consulting team bringing six sigma and lean thinking to Lockheed-Martin. The LM21 program would be a key part of their success in winning the $200 billion defense contract to build the F-35 (or Joint Strike Fighter aircraft).

A noticeably happy man walked in as students were taking their seats. His countenance lit up the room and was mirrored by everyone present. He was obviously someone important to this class. My co-instructor, a retired brigadier general who recognized the visitor, asked if he would like to speak. He smiled, shook his head “no,” and took a seat at one of the small group tables. When I spoke with Mr. Big at the first break, he was humble, attentive and extremely optimistic! His responses to questions made you aspire and dream like the “what do you want to be” questions you heard as a child. I later learned he was EVP in charge of the entire Aeronautical Division and highly regarded by the thousands under his leadership.

Fun leaders are about light. That word carries a double meaning—weight and radiance. “Light” leaders don’t take themselves seriously; preferring to channel focus toward the mission. They are quick to spotlight others, not themselves. “Light” leaders illuminate a vision and brighten the path toward vital results. “Light” leaders are champions of fair-dealings and wholesome relationships. They drive fear out of the workplace. This Lockheed-Martin celebrity could have taken a seat in the back as an observer and authority. He opted to be a partner with other learners at a table.

Leaders of innovation are ambassadors of happy. They look for ways to shake up the place with quirky events, silly signs, and celebrative occasions. They constantly seek the moments and methods to convey encouragement for ingenuity. And, even with serious work they make certain no one is excused from a belly laugh once in a while. In the words of the character Michael Scott on the TV program The Office, “Sometimes you have to take a break from being the kind of boss that’s always trying to teach people things. Sometimes you just have to be the boss of dancing!”

How has fun factored into your leadership experiences? Tell me in the comments!
Photo Credit: Fotolia xixinxing

About The Author

Articles By chip-bell
Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker and has served as a consultant to some of the world’s most famous brands. He has authored twenty books including “The 9 1⁄2 Principles of Innovative Service.” His newest book, “Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experience Through Innovative Service,” was released in February 2015.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

John Smith  |  17 Feb 2016  |  Reply

Hi, Chip – fun post, if you don’t mind a slight play on words:)

Two quick comments:

1) Your comment via Hamel includes an interesting last line: “But pursuing incremental improvements while rivals reinvent the industry is like fiddling while Rome burns.” I was listening to NPR earlier today and the commentator stated that Democratic voters could choose Clinton for incremental change or Sanders for revolution. This is both a neat summary for what these two candidates represent and a reminder that change does not come in only one flavor.

In Hamel’s case, incremental change was presented as less than attractive and I would agree with that assessment. We can incrementally inch along until we die without getting very far down the road. The revolutionist, of course, veers off the road into the uncharted wilds … and probably invents a flying machine, so they can ditch the car:).

2) It strikes me that embedded within the aura around every “fun” leader is a strong sense of trust and respect. Many people can be funny or fun to be with in certain situations, but in order to be “fun” the way you are describing it requires someone who knows how to develop, maintain, and nurture an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust. Otherwise, you are just a wise-cracking guy in the room.

3) On a personal level, humor and relaxed atmospheres have always been part of my leadership style, whether military, volunteer, corporate, or campus. I have found over the long haul that creating fun and a friendly environment are essential for effective leadership when things are not fun. The relationships that come from bonding with others on a very human level are the foundation upon which we take those actions which are necessary, but uncomfortable and even dangerous.

Thanks for a great post:)


Chip Bell  |  17 Feb 2016  |  Reply

Thank you, John, for your thoughtful comment. Your Clinton-Sanders perspective is an interesting one. Thank goodness there are more rebellious paths for a thriving and successful democracy than “from each according to his means; to each according to his need!” One wonders how the founding fathers would view today’s campaign rhetoric for both parties.

Paul LaRue  |  17 Feb 2016  |  Reply


Always love to read what you write! And thank you for bringing some life … FUN! … into our leadership “frontal lobe”.

I have always been intrigued by the person of Teddy Roosevelt – his was a “strenuous life” but marked with fin and adventure. Someone in history I would be honored to work with. And to tie him in with Herb Kelleher, also the modern benchmark of a fun leader, shows that their legacy was not merely a passing fad, but an enduring application of these principles played out in business and statemanship.

The best takeaway is simply your title Chip, “Is It Fun Being Led By You?”. This question alone should be asked throughout each day to ensure we infuse the joy of work and play into what we do in our lives.

Hats off to you Chip – Thanks!!’


Chip Bell  |  17 Feb 2016  |  Reply

Thank you, Paul. I am honored that you find my work beneficial. Leadership is fundamental a spiritual act–the influence of spirit, the nurturing of spirit and the celebration of spirit.

Michael Baker  |  18 Feb 2016  |  Reply

While Michael Scott’s approach is usually a lesson in what NOT to do, this article reminds me that even a stopped clock is right twice every day.

The great thing about this approach is it can be practiced by any leader at any level in the organization. While it’s much easier if the person at the top operates with a high fun factor, mid-level managers can still ramp up the fun – and reap the benefits of the approach – even if the C-Wing is packed with curmudgeons.


P. Jason King  |  19 Feb 2016  |  Reply

As a Global Executive Search CEO with an unusual unblemished track record spanning over 4 decades of always sourcing the “Right” Candidate for the Job Award presented to us…we keep the “FUN” in the recruitment process. Although no Company Client has ever requested the data we extract, we start when a candidate was born and move up to the Present, talking about the “Turn-Ons” and “Turn-Offs” along the route, always talking about the fun part of the job. While all our recruitment must encompass Title, Function, Responsibilities, Compensation, Location, … FUN places an intrinsic part of our process…especially in our industry the Travel & Hospitality fields. Our employees and me especially have FUN every single day!

Jodi  |  19 Feb 2016  |  Reply

Thanks. This was so appreciated. Just came out of a position where leadership discouraged all these things, sadly….bonding, sense of fun, commraderie and caring for your coworkers were looked down upon and those who tried to foster this were admonished. Guess the king was afraid that the peasants would rise up. Preferred to keep them down, divided, in check and in fear within a competitive environment. Tried to change this culture but it was fleeting. Glad to know I am not crazy and that places that value and support what you describe do indeed exist. As I “recover” from my experience, which I recognize is a step in the journey, I will keep my light aglow and seek out the illumination on the horizon. Thanks for sharing✌️

Chip Bell  |  21 Feb 2016  |  Reply

Thank you for your comment, Jodi. Fearful leaders lead with fear. And, their way of hiding their fear is often with anger and control. Authority is the last resort of the frustrated and angry. When leaders (or parents) resort to “because I said so” or “my way or the highway” it generally means they have long lost their ability to influence. Unfortunately, they only get compliance, not commitment; movement, not motivation. Keep the faith. There are great leaders out there with the confidence and compassion to lead with heart!

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