So This Leader Walks Into a Bar: Leadership Lessons From Stand-Up Comedy

Leaders can gain leadership knowledge in all kinds of unexpected places and through a variety of experiences.

Previously, I’ve posted about two leaders who’ve improved their leadership skills–and their results–by pursuing their passions, one through ballroom dancing and the other through “showing” horses.

Steve Cody,  founding partner of PR firm Peppercom who blogs as The Repman has honed his leadership skills by pursuing what may first appear to be an unlikely passion: becoming a stand-up comic.

Cody claims there are five leadership lessons he’s learned from practicing stand-up:

  1. Get Over Yourself!: Stand-up reinforces the importance of not taking yourself too seriously. And the less seriously you take yourself, the more credibility you gain as a leader, says Cody.
  2. Humor is Magnetic: Cody believes that humor is an incredibly powerful leadership tool, because in good times and especially in bad, followers are attracted to leaders who send out a confident vibe that says “If we stick together, we will get through these  dark moments.”  A leader who’s willing to laugh at the roughest times demonstrates enormous confidence, and that’s contagious.
  3. It’s Not Just What You Say, But How You Say It:  Practicing comedy heightens one’s awareness of  non-verbal cues,  both what you’re signaling and what your audience is sending you. This is a critical skill for leaders and managers, when meeting with their teams, when speaking with clients and perhaps most of all, in new business presentations.
  4. Timing is Everything:  Comedians, presenters and sales people know that timing plays an important role in closing the sale, convincing and audience and in getting the laugh. Cody says that the give-and-take with an audience that occurs in stand-up allows its practitioners to know how and when to fill a pregnant pause, and how to use humor to ease tension.
  5. Comedy Builds Courage:  According to Cody, the experience of regularly facing an audience–many of whom are not in the mood to laugh–and actually surviving, helps one build a thicker skin and a deep well of bravery. Cody, who has spoken and blogged about the importance  of leaders putting on a happy face, indicates it’s much easier to do so when you’ve taken steps to increase your courage and confidence.

Earlier this year, during the depths of the economic doldrums, Steve and co-founding partner Ed Moed decided they needed to do something to lift the agency’s spirits, maximize the free time that accompanied the slowdown,  and increase the agency’s win rate.

It will come as no surprise that they trained a number of their staff in stand-up comedy. Among the results: enhanced morale, increased presentation skills and perhaps most important, a slew of new business wins.

Could you benefit from participating in stand-up comedy? Would taking yourself less seriously, but building your courage and exuding more confidence help you attract followers? Would fine-tuning your timing and enhancing your reading of non-verbal cues help to improve your win rate? What other passions are you pursuing that help make you a better leader?

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Ken Jacobs is the principal of
Jacobs Communications Consulting, which helps organizations grow business and develop staff.
He can be reached at

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Leadership Straight from the Horse’s Mouth

Leaders can significantly improve their skills by having outside hobbies, passions and pursuits.

It helps them channel their energies, frustrations and passions into something else other than organizational effectiveness. It can also help them learn a thing or two…

Business leader Carol Cone of Cone, Inc., a leader in cause-related branding programs is also a champion in the highly competitive world of showing horses when she is not leading her firm.

Cone enjoys this extra curricular activity in part because it closely relates to her role in leading her organization. For the uninitiated, the world of showing horses is about riding horses, known as hunters, over jumps of various heights. The key is to make it look as smooth and effortless as possible, much like ice skating, or like leading a successful organization. But prior to showing horses, things were a bit different.

For two decades, Cone focused single-mindedly on leading and growing her business.

When friends encouraged her to find a personal passion to pursue, it was natural for Cone to return to the equestrian world and the sport she had first enjoyed at age seven.


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Cone not only re-connected with the joy of the sport, but in her unabashedly direct style, says she realized “that I was very good at it!”   Her recent honors include the Grand Champion Adult Hunter at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Florida for 2006/2007 and the American Hunter/Jumper Foundation National Adult Champion in 2006.

More important, her return to showing horses has taught her four key leadership lessons which she applies at Cone, Inc. and she recommends to  others.

The four key lessons are:

1) Focus
2) Patience
3) Teamwork
4) The Importance of Little Victories


“When you’ve practiced for months, and have only two minutes to do a championship performance, you must be totally focused on the moment.  You’ve got so many moving parts on which to concentrate, many of which are new or different: the course, your competitors, the crowd and that day’s weather.”

Cone says that even with a great relationship between rider and horse, the rider must sense if the horse is quiet or nervous.

One must instinctively sense “if you should push, or if you should hold back.”

That kind of intense focus is critical in today’s challenging and rapidly-changing work environment, she adds.


Cone says you can only push horses so far.  “You must be patient about their development.”  She says the same is true of your team, particularly specific team members.

“Remember, a team isn’t one person, but a group of individuals.”

It’s also critical to be patient when bringing clients to a Big Idea.  “You need to give clients the time to understand all the elements before they’re going to take a big leap with you.”  And you have to explain the importance of  patience to those clients.  “They must understand the need to  be associated with a cause over time before gaining reputational benefits.”

“When you’re showing, you can have the best horse in the world, but if it needs to be cooled down, or massaged or even get acupuncture, or if it requires an advance ride around the ring at 6:00 am to feel comfortable,” patience is a virtue you must develop to win.

Cone acknowledges that as someone who is very competitive and committed to superb results, this was a tough, but vital lesson for her to have to learn.


Cone is quick to acknowledge that her victories in the show ring aren’t merely her own, but shared with an extensive team, including  trainers, grooms, vets, masseuses, blacksmiths and more.

The same is true of cause-related efforts:  It requires a team of dedicated agency professionals, a patient client team who believes in the cause, partners at the cause organization, even the media.

“But when it all works,” Cone says, “it’s like a symphony.”


Cone says that “When you lead an organization, as when you show horses, you must accept that you can’t win every competition,” but you should recognize, acknowledge, learn from, and savor the little victories along the way.

She adds that “Every day I need to accomplish something to be satisfied.”

Still, it’s unrealistic to think that each day will bring a major victory, and if that’s what leaders seek, they’re bound to be disappointed.  But celebrating the small victories along the way can inspire a team to deliver the next big idea.

As Patrice Tanaka acknowledged in a recent post about the leadership lessons she learned from ballroom dancing, Cone says there’s one other important learning that leaders can gain by following their passions:  “I have an intensity that’s powerful and can overwhelm others.  Having another outlet where I can excel allows me to modify that intensity; and that makes me a better leader.”

What leadership lessons might you learn from pursuing your passion?  Is your intensity burning out members of your staff?  Are you overdue for a lesson in patience?   Is it time to start celebrating the small victories?  When the last time you acknowledged the team that helped make you a winner?

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Ken Jacobs is the principal of Jacobs Communications Consulting LLC.
He can be reached at

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Leadership Lessons from Ballroom Dancing

Many leaders are so focused on leading their own organizations that it becomes all-encompassing.  That’s a shame, because by regularly turning away from the business and instead focusing on an outside hobby, pursuit or passion, one can actually become a better leader.

I spoke recently with Patrice Tanaka, who is co-chair, chief creative officer and Whatcanbe ambassador for CRT/tanaka. She believes that pursuing her passion has improved her life, her business and her leadership acumen. She wasn’t always this way.

After too many years as a workaholic, Tanaka started competitive ballroom dancing seven years ago.  Before that she had never even had a hobby.

“Nothing was as compelling as my work, so I poured everything into that.  As a result, my life wasn’t balanced, my perspective was skewed, and I had no outlet for my personal creativity” says Tanaka.

Opening One’s Eyes…Through Dancing

Tanaka states that prior to ballroom dancing, she “naively and arrogantly believed that I had all the great ideas, and if my ideas prevailed, my company would succeed.”  With hindsight, Tanaka sees that limited her perspective and also limited her company’s success potential.


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One of the first lessons she learned from ballroom dancing was that having a strong leader wasn’t enough: a strong partner-follower plays an equally critical role in winning.  “The first time my dancing partner said ‘Will you please let me lead?!’ was a real eye-opener for her.” She didn’t know that she was hogging the leadership role.

Tanaka says this perspective has allowed her to be more empathetic to others’ input, especially during creative sessions.

Before she danced competitively, Tanaka says she was a slave to perfection.  “I believed that it wasn’t enough to have a big idea and execute it superbly, but that you had to implement it flawlessly, impeccably, and meticulously.  That made me an unforgiving taskmaster.”

Going All Out

Pursuing her passion taught her that being an unforgiving taskmaster impedes organizational success.

“If you’re afraid you won’t execute each step just so, you’ll hold back, and you’ll fail.  Judges really aren’t looking for small errors—they’re much more concerned if you’re dancing ‘full-out’ and with passion.”

“Dancing full-out means not playing it safe, not worrying about making mistakes or how you look, but taking risks.  It’s about getting out of your comfort zone, something real leaders must do on a regular basis. If you fail, you fail, and you learn from it.  But if you don’t do it, you’re not really a leader,” says Tanaka.

As a result, Tanaka says she now approaches life—and business—more fearlessly.

Real Life Test

This approach was put to the test a few years ago when her firm was “pitching” a major account.  The company had the option of creating a “PR-only” approach to a potential client’s situation, or it could go out of its comfort zone and partner with another organization that offered branding, advertising and other marketing services such as media buying, research, database marketing, and trade support.

Courage won the day.  Her firm partnered with the agency, offered a full-bore marketing campaign and won the business.  It’s now the agency’s biggest account.

Tanaka has absolutely no plans to change her dedication to dancing.  In fact, she’s created a website dedicated to it, named, appropriately enough, Samba Girl.

Would you be a better leader if you “followed” from time to time? Could you enhance your leadership skills by spending more time pursuing your hobby or passion?   Are you finding non-work outlets for your creativity and sources of creative inspiration?   Or are you so focused on work that you seek perfection rather than performance?

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Author’s NOTE: If you think that ballroom dancing could enhance your leadership style, check out This Site and This One


Ken Jacobs is the principal of Jacobs Communications Consulting LLC.
He can be reached at

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Game Face

Get Your Game Face On!

Game Face

Despite the somewhat uplifting economic news this recent week, these are days that indeed try leaders’ souls.  And if you think it is tough being a leader, imagine how scary it is being a follower. It’s downright terrifying.

As a leader, you can be proactive in diffusing the power of fear caused by economic uncertainty by deciding to play a decisive role in how your followers face each day. You can do this by taking a page from the world of sports by “getting on your game face!”


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Think about the reality of your position. As a leader, your persona is on your followers’ radar screens. They are scrutinizing you for any signal about how they should feel about your company’s health and their own economic future. You must understand that your face and your words will broadcast much of what you are feeling and many will be absorbing your vibe.

To be most effective in motivating your team, you should produce the kind of vibe and atmosphere that motivates rather than de-motivates. You must provide a positive vision in which the team can believe and follow. Your team must believe both in itself and in you in order to achieve maximum performance, despite what they see in the news each day.

Gettin’ Your Game Face On! Here’s how…

First, consider the language you are using.  Does it reinforce that you have a vision to get your organization through these tough times? Are your words full of optimism and encouragement? Do they reinforce your belief that if the team follows you and you all work together that your organization will get through these tough days? Are you conveying that you all will not only survive, but actually thrive?

And what about your vocal tone? A discouraging tone trumps encouraging words every time.  Make sure that yours conveys calmness, steadiness and confidence.

Next, think about your body language. When you walk down the hall, is it with energy, enthusiasm and a sense of purpose?  When employees come into your office, does your posture welcome them?

Finally, consider your facial expressions. Are you aware what you are conveying to your team with how you appear to them? Are you doing what is necessary to instill a courageous spirit within the ranks by assuming a confidence in your face? Does your smile indicate that you’re glad that they’re there, and ready to listen with intensity?

In light of this challenging environment, it’s only normal to have doubts.  Only a fool wouldn’t.  But have them in private. Make your public persona one that will benefit others; not one that will take away their motivation.

In a recent guest post on the thoughtLEADERSLLC blog, it says if you’re not feeling courageous, you must “fake-it-till-you-make-it.” Or, if the sports metaphor of a game face isn’t quite your tune, you can follow the recommendations in the Broadway songs “Whistle a Happy Tune,” and “Put on a Happy Face.”

What are you doing to formulate a successful strategy so that your game face is authentic? How are you practicing your leadership responsibilities of preparing each day as if it were the big game? I would love to hear what daily disciplines are working for you!

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