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Drawing on Humor to Boost the Power and Efficacy of Women Leaders Today

Liza Donnelly is a writer and cartoonist for The New Yorker, the New York Times, Forbes and Medium. She is a sought after speaker, having performed at TED and many other venues.

Our guest blogger, Liza Donnelly is a writer and cartoonist for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Forbes and Medium. She is a sought after speaker, having performed at TED and many other venues.

As an artist, I like to envision things. When you picture leadership, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Maybe you instinctively think of a man, because leaders in key positions – presidents, CEOs and bankers – are still mostly men. But the world is changing and more and more of today’s leaders are women. They may not be in the limelight but they make us want to be better, to achieve more, and to help more. Women leaders in our local communities inspire us to live up to our potential, often because they have done so.

Women lead by example, through actions; or with words, through writing; or with art, by painting, creating music, or dancing. We typically think of leaders as serious people, driven by a mission or a cause, people who never relax, who do not know how to play. This stereotype also takes us to the assumption that leaders are humorless. Who has time to be funny when you are leading? What place does humor have in leadership, anyway?

There is plenty of room for humor. Humor serves different purposes when utilized. It can be a calming force and a unifying one; if used aggressively, it can be hurtful and divisive. But when used for good, people who draw upon humor express a shared humanity, a common understanding of life. When you combine leadership and humor, I believe women can become extremely effective leaders. Amy Poehler, for example, did this brilliantly in her speech at Variety’s Power of Women 2013 awards where she advocates for activism, service and support for the Worldwide Orphans’ Foundation.

In my forties I started thinking about ways I might put women and humor together to create change. In most cases, humor is based on the given in a culture, the rules of a society. It takes what we know and twists it, creates the unexpected, and that is what elicits a laugh. I realized I held the power to flip the negative paradigm of women on its head and created a new image of women as leaders in my cartoons.


Copyright Liza Donnelly and The New Yorker Magazine

I began designing the content of my cartoons to extend beyond the realm of laughter to make people stop and think about the stupid rules and outdated social mores we’re habitually following. For example, women have traditionally been the caretakers in cultures, and they know the rules intimately because they have to pass them down to the next generation. Now if you don’t like these rules, and many of us don’t — I know I didn’t, and still don’t, even though I follow them half the time, not quite aware that I’m following them — what better way than to challenge and ultimately change them than with humor?


Copyright Liza Donnelly and The New Yorker Magazine

Women can use humor to make light of wrongful traditions and strictures. It can be a risky, but very effective tool. Collaborating with international cartoonists from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey, has given me a greater appreciation of the power of cartoons to get at the truth, to get at issues quickly and succinctly. Think, for example, of the satirical power of Tina Fey’s impersonations of Sarah Palin, or how comedian-activist Margaret Cho uses her stand-up to speak out for marginalized groups or break down racial identity and stereotypes in order to shift perceptions and public thinking.

Copyright Liza Donnelly

Copyright Liza Donnelly

When there are difficult tasks at hand, humor makes the difficult easier to swallow, it can help others to understand what needs to be changed. Moreover, it can make any job or endeavor rewarding and I believe more successful. When a leader is addressing you and uses humor, when she shares the fun and joy of life with you, or shares the ridiculousness of life, it is inspiring as well as enlightening. Humor eases the path to move forward, and I believe it can help women and men, leaders and followers, change the world — one laugh at a time.


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