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Leadership: The Role of Humor

Ben Legg
Former COO of Google, Europe

Learning outcomes

  • How leaders can use humor in leadership and the risks with using humor in the workplace

Executive Bio

Ben Legg

Former COO of Google, Europe

Ben is an engineer by training and spent over 10 years in the Royal Engineers in the British Army career before moving to McKinsey. In 2002, he moved to Coca-Cola where he ran teams across Eastern Europe before turning around the Indian business leading 12,000 salespeople. Ben then moved to Google where was COO of UK and Ireland for 2 years before being promoted to COO Europe where he was responsible for writing the monetisation blueprint of Google’s various properties. This involved defining the role of ad units, properties, interactions with agencies and partners, and devising how auctions should work. Ben then ran a Yellow Pages turnaround before running an ad-tech business for 6 years which ran $200m of ad spend through the major technology platforms. Ben is the author of Marketing for CEO’s and is on the Board of The Oxford Foundry where he is a mentor and investor to multiple startups. Read more

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Interview Transcript

How do you look at the role of humor in leadership?

I would say it’s dangerous but really useful. Dangerous as in if you’re constantly telling jokes, people might think the person or the company isn’t serious. But also, if you can laugh at mistakes, it takes the stress out of mistakes. If you can laugh at yourself, it means people will realise you’re human and you’ll take feedback the right way. Somehow, being able to laugh about things is good, providing you’re not seen as a joker. There’s a fine line.

I was in Bosnia during the war. I was with about seven or eight guys, and we were building an observation post on a cliff overlooking Sarajevo to bomb the Serbs into submission. I guess they figured out what was going on, and they started bombing us. Mortar bombs were landing all over the place, and we realised the only safe place was a trench about 200 metres away, so we started running towards it. One of my guys who had a very good sense of humour said, “Okay, let’s get in line, we can’t jump in the trench all in one go. Who’s got four kids? Get to the front. Three kids? You’re next. Two kids?” And there’s the guy at the back. “You’re single. You don’t even have a girlfriend, get to the back.” You can laugh in almost any situation.

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