Jack was my grandfather, and I can’t think of a better role model. As unorthodox as it may sound, I’ve learned that there are many parallels between my grandfather’s unique approach to comedy and corporate leadership. I was well into my career as a technologist, however, before I recognized these parallels. From an early age, I identified as a math-science nerd, and I thought, “What could a comedian teach me about my future career?” As it turns out, the answer is quite a lot.
At the mention of Jack Benny, some of you of a certain age are easily recalling the character, the voice, and the many foibles that became such recognizable characteristics of his on-stage persona. The rest of you likely have no idea who I’m talking about.
So, let me introduce you to Jack Benny. After early success on vaudeville, first with a violin act and then with comedy, Jack got his own radio show. This was the 1930’s, when a whole new form of mass entertainment was literally being invented. He created a show format that was part variety show and part situation comedy. Some half a century before Seinfeld took it to a whole new level, The Jack Benny Program was the show about nothing. Also, like Seinfeld, Jack played himself. On the show, he played Jack Benny, comedian, a character who, quite opposite from how he was in real life, was vain, stingy, and a bad violin player. The humor often centered on these character foibles. Here is a typical example: Jack is shopping in the market when a little girl approaches him.
Girl: Hello mister. Are you Jack Benny?
Jack: Why yes, yes I am.
Girl: You know, I play violin too.
Jack: Well gosh, that’s swell. Do you play like me?
Girl: I used to.
Jack and his radio show were enormously popular. During the war years, a national poll had Jack’s voice as the number one most recognizable voice in America. Second was President Roosevelt. When television came along, the Jack Benny Program was one of very few that successfully transitioned to the new medium. Jack also regularly performed a stage act and starred in several movies. In fact, Jack has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: one each for radio, television, and motion pictures.
Sharing the Funny
It might surprise you, then, to learn that as a kid growing up, though I knew that Grandad was a famous comedian, I didn’t think he was all that funny. This is due in part to the fact that often, like in the example above, it was someone else who delivered the funny line.
Right there we have the secret to Jack’s success, and it’s a formula we can learn from. Even though it was his show, he did not need to be the funniest person on the show. This is not to say that he wasn’t competitive or egoless. In fact, it mattered very much to him that his show was funny and number one in the ratings. It’s the way Jack went about achieving this pinnacle that is so remarkable. He did it by surrounding himself with the best writers and comedic actors in the business. It was all about the ensemble.
The leadership lesson is obvious. Just as Jack did not need to be the funniest person on his show, a good leader does not need to be the smartest person on the team. Indeed, only by eschewing this particular form of ego can the power of the ensemble truly be realized. Only in this type of environment can everyone participate fully, share fully, and maybe even take some risks. Strong leaders can learn and achieve much more when they harness the power of their peers’ collective intelligence.
Be Generous with the Laughter
In their book, Humor Seriously, authors Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, illustrate the power of humor in the context of business, making the point that it’s less about being funny and more about “being generous with laughter.” Well, nobody was more generous with laughter than Jack Benny. George Burns said, “Jack didn’t just laugh at things I said, he’d fall down on the floor … on the street … in the men’s room … wherever we were. I still have a bad back from all the times I had to pick him up. But it was worth it.” Jack was the best audience a comedian could ever have.
What a great lesson for leadership: a good leader is also a good audience. A good leader is a listener, an amplifier, an interpreter, someone who can elevate the participation of all team members. By being a good audience, a leader creates an environment that encourages participation, sharing, and risk-taking. Moreover, an environment that values collaboration over individual star power attracts the best talent, retains the best talent, and allows that talent to develop and flourish to its full potential.
Jack’s formula for success in comedy was unusual, to say the least, but this same formula can, and should, be widely adopted in leadership. Whereas most great comedians dominate the spotlight with rapid-fire delivery or manic improvisation, Jack’s comedy was casually paced, familiar, and inclusive. Even on his own show, Jack shared the spotlight, let others deliver the funny lines, and served as the straight man with perfectly timed pauses and reactions making everything and everyone in his orbit even funnier. I can’t think of a better professional role model for us non-comedians.
Dr. Robert Blumofe is executive vice president and chief technology officer at Akamai, a content delivery network, cybersecurity, and cloud company, providing web and internet security services. A former associate professor of computer science at the University of Texas at Austin, he is widely published in the areas of algorithms and systems for highly distributed and parallel computing.