The Cruise Director was making the daily announcements over the ship’s loudspeakers and, as usual, no one paid any attention. Until, the words, “and now, a few words from the Captain of the Solstice Cruise Ship in his maiden voyage crossing the Atlantic, Captain Demetrius.” Then, many of passengers stopped what they were doing to listen
“Good afternoon,” said a deep, firm voice.”This is Captain Demetrius.” Pause. “Does anyone have a GPS?” Another pause. And then a few passengers guffawed. And then, “I’m having a little trouble figuring out where we are.” Widespread laughter filled the ship.
In between the laughs, the Captain continued his comedy routine for another 2-3 minutes and then signed off: “This is Captain Demitrius.” Pause. “Out.”
On the second day, all of the passengers stopped in their tracks to listen and chuckle at his remarks. On the third day, they joined him in saying “out!” at the end of his comments, and the ritual was established that lasted the rest of the 15-day voyage.
While most cruise ships pay special attention to customer training, and the crew is usually courteous (especially when they are working for tips,) this one had a slightly different flavor. Crew members were frequently laughing together, humming, and always had not only a warm “hello,” but a big smile. I thought maybe it was just our good luck with the people taking care of us, but after a few days, it was clear. These crew members were happy campers.
One morning, I saw the captain eating breakfast with an empty chair beside him, so I asked if I could join him. A merry man, dressed casually, he welcomed me as if we were old friends. “Please sit down,” he said with his prominent Greek accent. “I’d love to have you join me.”
His English was excellent, and there was a definite twinkle in his eyes, a lilt in his voice when he spoke. We chatted informally, and then I complimented him on his strategic use of humor as a leader. I said that the impact was definitely noticeable, not only in the attitude of the crew, but in their frequent offers to do much more than what was required. He smiled broadly, definitely pleased with this feedback and said that he had strong feelings about that. “If the crew hates their jobs, they can’t help but pass that along to the passengers. Who wants to be on a beautiful cruise ship in a gorgeous part of the world and have cranky staff?”
Since I teach leadership to senior executives and their teams—land lubbers of course—I was intrigued with his style, his personality and his techniques. For the rest of the voyage, we saw nothing but payoffs of his leadership and couldn’t have had a better trip.
Ever since returning, I’ve been thinking about the role of humor in leadership. I’ve always believed that laughter and camaraderie were important in organizations, and I encouraged both during my 30 years as a CEO. The payoffs were priceless and the impact on performance immeasurable. But I’m not sure I was as deliberate and strategic in my use of humor as Captain Demetrius. It was pretty clear after speaking with him for awhile that virtually everything he did was deliberate, including his jokes. “If they don’t go over, I don’t use them again,” he said, and I could almost picture him practicing those jokes in his stateroom.
I wonder if all leaders could benefit by becoming more deliberate and strategic about using humor. Or perhaps all leaders need to become more deliberate and strategic in everything they do. It certainly paid off nicely for Captain Demetrius—and his customers.