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!”