World Leaders and Humor: Putin and Obama


What is the leadership culture of a World Leader? Looking at leaders such as Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama, we see how humor (or lack thereof) can play a part in the communication process.  Leadership and humor are two things that should be together like peanut butter and jelly, and yet typically they are not. Why?

Putin vs. Obama

I want to go on record as the first to suggest a new sitcom, it’s a revival of the Odd Couple starring Putin and Obama. I’d watch that, wouldn’t you?

Putin4(Obama on left, Putin on right)

As Americans, we know that President Obama has a sense of humor. Whether he is joking about himself or about the inefficiencies of politics, he uses humor to lighten up an otherwise boring, dry, and hot-air filled speech.

Russia's president Vladimir Putin arrives in Mexico for G20 Summit

Do Russians see a humorous side of Putin? Did he ever make wife (or ex-wife) jokes? Does he ever joke about himself?

From what we know, Putin seems to be quite serious. He is known to enjoy spy novels, has a black belt in judo, and is fluent in German. This sounds like someone I would never want to mess with, right?

Perhaps this is how he likes to be perceived—as a person who never lets his defenses down, knows tactics, and can dominate you in a fight.

Obama tried to lighten Putin up at the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland last year.

“We compared notes on President Putin’s expertise in judo and my declining skills in basketball,” Obama said, “and we both agreed that as you get older it takes more time to recover.” Do you think Putin let that joke slide? Hell no. With a straight face, Putin replied, “The president wants to relax me with his statement of age.”

Basically what Putin said was, “Nice try American, but I won’t play your power games. I don’t have anything funnier to say than what you just said, so my only option is to shoot that down, causing you to feel awkward. Bam! How do you like that?”

Perhaps if Putin had something funnier to say he would have gone for it, but maybe he was scared—thinking that his reply would only be marginally funny, which meant that Obama would have the upper hand in that little exchange of comedy. I bet if you are a world leader, you think about these things.

There are three points to be made here regarding leadership and comedy.

The Odd CoupleJack Klugman (left) and Tony Randall

#1: Humor should be a major part of leadership, but it is hard.

Humor is particularly tough when you are interacting with those where their 2nd or 3rd language is your fluent language, or with those from distinctly different cultures. On the one hand, humor can be divisive and off-putting, on the other everyone likes to laugh and it can help build community or at least camaraderie. The trick is to maintain the right balance so that you up your chances for positive results (the latter) as opposed to the awkward silence of humor lost in translation “that’s not what I meant” and so forth.

#2: Think of it as a board game, not a power game.

It’s like when you play a board game where you try to get points (not “Risk”!) and the other player just wants to get points, you are in the middle of the game and nobody knows who would ultimately win. So you are playing Scrabble with another leader, and you want to make sure you are a worthy opponent. You are mainly showing that you are a good, smart player with skills and abilities. Of course you could argue that conversation can always be a grab for power, but thinking in those terms can make you paranoid, and hinder the communication. It’s hard to say, especially when you are a prestigious leader, that you are merely trying to “poke fun” since the stakes are always high. Sometimes we need to take it down a notch, as if it was just a board game.

#3: Practice it, or else it will feel awkward or foreign.

Like Judo, humor must be practiced if you ever want to be good at it. Perhaps Putin doesn’t feel as versed in it as he suspects Obama is which means that could be a battle of wits we would always lose. Perhaps to Putin a leader is one with a serious image, a no-nonsense figure that gets down to business and nothing more. Either way, it can only help us to practice it so that we have it as a tool to use just in case.

One can only wonder whether terrorists like Osama Bin Laden had a sense of humor. It would seem hard to believe, but then again, what kind of image would that be of him if you saw him do something goofy on YouTube? The cartoon “Family Guy” makes a great joke of this where Osama is making a video of one of his “death to America” speeches. During the taping, he cracks up because things are making him laugh, so they keep doing it over, like outtakes in a TV show.

President Obama does a good job of having a balance. He uses humor frequently but not to the point where he is viewed as a fool. He maintains a professional diplomatic image, but can still crack a joke here and there. He practices it all the time, and it shows. He knows that in a world where politics and foreign relations are serious business, a little humor can go a long way in getting us to a better place, at minimum, in maintaining (or attempting to maintain) strong relationships. He knows that we can learn from humor as well.

Using humor is a great way to convey a practical point about life. Discussing a practical point about life is a great opportunity to use humor.  

While Putin may continue reading spy novels, practicing judo, and appearing unflinching and all-business, he would be wise to benefit from learning the tactics (like spy tactics) of humorous communication. It’s not for everyone, but for leaders, it can definitely do a world of good.

Should Putin try to lighten up at all?

Should someone buy the rights to the sitcom?

Reply to this post or tweet me @brombizzle

-Michael Bromberg


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