Do You Have the Guts to Laugh at Yourself?

Imagine you are walking into an office building for an important meeting. You’re carrying a cup of coffee and as you pass through the building’s security system, you spill it all over the floor. There are gasps and shrieks. Everyone is looking at you.

So, how would you handle this embarrassing situation?

If you are the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, you grab a mop and start cleaning up the mess you just made.

The Prime Minister was recently walking into the parliament buildings in The Hague when, as he passed through security, he dropped his coffee. The whole messy adventure was captured on video and shared with the world. You can see it here.

A lot of people probably watched the video just to see a powerful politician in a compromising position. For me, the whole thing was a lesson in great leadership. Here was the leader of a major European country showing grace and humor in the face of an embarrassing mishap.

What happened next was even more interesting. All over the world, the video went viral. Yet in his home country, the incident wasn’t seen as a big deal.

Writing in The Washington Post, Adam Taylor noted that for the Dutch, this anecdote was simply a symbol of Rutte’s renowned humility. A man who has often shown he knows how to use the power of social media to his advantage. For the rest of us who didn’t know much about Rutte before the coffee escapade, it was remarkable.

Why did this story become so important to people outside the Netherlands?

I believe it’s because we don’t think of our most senior leaders—political leaders, CEOs etc.—as the poster children for humility and modesty.

In fact, I think we can imagine that many other leaders would have reacted very differently in the exact same situation. In the heat of the moment, other leaders may have started making a fuss, and possibly blaming someone for causing the spill. Others would have ordered someone else to clean it up and quickly scurried off to their meeting, trying desperately to get out of the limelight.

I’ve written a lot about leadership being a collection of big moments and small moments. How you decide to show up in those moments, especially the small ones, define you as a person and a leader. It’s something a lot of leaders don’t fully appreciate. How you respond to these small moments matters. We are judged by others. These small and often incidental moments showcase our character.

As I saw Prime Minister Rutte in action this week a few valuable insights and lessons emerged for me.

First off it helps to have a sense of humor. Before picking up a broom, Mr. Rutte actually laughed at what happened to him. Too many leaders take themselves too seriously and wouldn’t see any humor in the embarrassing situation.

Second, being self-deprecating is really valuable to a leader. We all make mistakes but if we strive to be or appear perfect, we may pay a price in how others see us. We like people who are human, have faults and bring a sense of humility to who they are. Research shows that when leaders demonstrate humility is creates greater connection and engagement among the people they lead. We like people who aren’t perfect. We like people who are humble. In fact, we even like robots who are clumsy and make mistakes.

Finally, it’s important to show people you are capable of cleaning up your own mess. I know leaders who believe that menial work is beneath them. Would you pick up a mop? Do you clean your own coffee cup, or pick up plates after lunch at work? Or do you expect everyone else to clean up after you? These little things communicate that you are the real deal, a regular person, like the rest of us.

As leaders, we are defined more by the challenges we face—both professional and personal—than we are by the way we react to successes. It’s easy to seem gracious when you’re receiving an award or you are the subject of accolades for your accomplishments. It’s a lot harder to demonstrate that same grace and composure when you are trapped in an embarrassing or compromising position.

But then again, leadership itself is hard work.

This week’s Gut Check for Leaders asks: Do you have the guts to laugh at yourself?

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