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Apple and Facebook have one startling thing missing. Stanford is trying to teach it

Especially in the world of remote work, employees apparently crave one thing from their leaders. At least, that's what two professors say at tech's favorite university.


Let me tell you about the one where Tim Cook took a shower...

Screenshot by ZDNet

Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Satya Nadella walk into a bar.

No, that's not going to work. Let's try this:

Knock, knock.

Who's there?

Mark Zuckerberg.

Oh, go away.

Please forgive me, but I've suddenly learned something about humor I never expected. Well, never expected from Stanford University.

I think of it as a place where people are grotesquely self-confident and self-absorbed -- even on a golf course. I think of it as a place that may have been slow to embrace the teaching of ethics in certain quarters.

I don't think of it as a place where some of the softer sides of management leap to the fore.

Yet here are Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas ready to disabuse me. They believe a crucial element of modern leadership is, oh really, humor.

Aaker is the Stanford Graduate School of Business General Atlantic Professor and Coulter Family Fellow for 2020-21. I don't think it's Ann Coulter's people, but you never know. Bagdonas is a lecturer in management at Stanford Business School.

Together, they not only teach humor to the evidently dry leaders of the future but have written a new book, Tell Us A Joke, Tim Cook, You Sanctimonious Twerp.

I'm sorry, that's not quite right. It's called Humor, Seriously. Why Humor Is A Secret Weapon in Business and Life. Seriously.

Humor. Surely that's the first trait you associate with Zuckerberg, Dorsey, Nadella, Cook, Sundar Pichai, and just about every other tech leader today.

They make you feel at ease with a quip, rather than want to furiously scratch some part of your face. Whenever they speak, there's a tumult of titters and a groundswell of guffaws. Their one-liners are the stuff of legend.

Actually, one can only imagine -- and one has heard from those who know -- that their leadership styles drift toward the intense, rather than the innately cheery.

Oh, but look at the research Aaker and Bagdonas presented in an excerpt from their book published in Fast Company.

Are you aware that those who use humor at work are seen as more competent and confident -- and enjoying higher status too?

Can you possibly believe that employees who say their leader is humorous -- even the slightest hint -- rate them 27% more motivating? Employees say they're 15% happier in their jobs if they have an even vaguely funny leader. (I'm not thinking Larry Ellison. How about you?)

It could be, of course, that our tech titans are, in the cocoon of their own Zoom meetings and Polynesian hideaways, cracking even wiser than they're pontificating.

It could be that I'm dreaming here.

Aaker and Bagdonas insist humor isn't just confined to leaders personally. Why, it makes teams more productive. Including Microsoft ones, I shouldn't wonder.

The authors say: "Teams that laugh together before trying to solve a creativity challenge are more than twice as likely to succeed versus those who don't laugh together first."

Were they all laughing while they created the iPhone? Yes, they were. Even Steve Ballmer thought it was funny. The iPad? Ach, that came out of a drinking game at the office when someone broke the screen off a MacBook.

As for AirPods, someone put a couple of broken bits of plastic in their ears as a joke and an engineer cried: "Genius! That's it! Crappy earrings that double as headphones!"

Aaker and Bagdonas' book came out last week. I wonder if Cook was the first to reach for it.

That was a joke.