How Transformational Leaders Use Self-deprecating Humour - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #382

How Transformational Leaders Use Self-deprecating Humour

This is one of our free-to-access content pieces. To gain access to all Ideas for Leaders content please Log In Here or if you are not already a Subscriber then Subscribe Here.
Main Image
Main Image


Transformational leaders, who are focused on helping others advance and succeed, know how to use self-deprecating humour to earn the respect and trust of their followers. 


While a sense of humour can be an effective leadership tool, it depends on how that humour is used. Humour that targets or belittles followers undermines the leader’s influence. On other hand, humour that is self-deprecating can increase the connection between a leader and his or her followers.

Self-deprecating humour is especially potent for transformational leaders, defined as leaders who are focused on the advancement and success of their people. Transformational leadership consists of these four components:

  • Idealized influence (by treating followers fairly, leaders are trusted and respected, thus serving as a role model)
  • Inspirational motivation (motivating through a clear vision enables followers to surpass their expectations)
  • Intellectual stimulation (encouraging followers to think independently and explore new and creative ways of doing things and solving problems)
  • Individualized consideration (being attentive and sensitive to each person’s needs and skills)

Pseudo-transformational leaders, in sharp contrast to transformational leaders, are focused on themselves and not others. Instead of a transformational leader’s humility, the pseudo-transformational leader revels in attention and credit.

This narcissism/humility dichotomy is evident in a leader’s sense of humour. The humble leader will use self-deprecating humour; the narcissist leader will focus his or her humour on others. However, it’s important to note the difference between self-deprecating and self-defeating humour. Self-deprecation is humble and honest, but it is not depressed or negative. Depressed and defeated people do not make good leaders.

The constructive outcome of self-deprecation is to reduce the status differences between leaders and their followers. Followers not only like these types of leaders, but feel ‘closer’ to them. This closeness or connection is important because it makes followers more willing to listen to the leader’s message. Thus, humour is a key element of persuasiveness.

More specifically, the attributes of self-deprecating humour — an honest and humble view of self and an appreciation and respect of others — reinforce the four components of transformational leadership: the honesty and humility that earns the respect of followers is required for idealized influence; the respect and appreciation for others that is at the root of a transformational leader’s individualized consideration; the positive emotions that self-deprecating humour generates helps the leader to provide inspirational motivation; and even the example of a leader who is not afraid to reject the traditional top-down relationship of leaders and followers can support intellectual stimulation by helping followers reject conventional thinking and challenge assumptions. 


Transformational leadership is no laughing matter. The difference between an organization that stagnates and one that evolves and innovates often lies with the attitudes of employees and managers toward top leadership. While today’s executives will state that they (and their organizations) reject the top-down, command-and-control leadership style of previous generations, applying the theory of inclusion and unfettered delegation under the pressures of real-world leadership is not an easy task. Leaders must create a culture of mutual respect and trust, which can only result from top management’s commitment to egalitarian relationships.

In sharp contrast to aggressive humour that can destroy a leader’s credibility and effectiveness, humour that is self-deprecating without being defeatist is an extraordinary tool for communicating and reinforcing a culture based on these egalitarian relationships. There is a fine line, however, between self-deprecating and self-disparaging, and leaders must walk it carefully.

Also, use such humour sparingly. Repeated use of self-deprecating humour can start to undermine confidence or might appear as insincere, destroying the connection and trust that form the basis of an egalitarian relationship.



Ideas for Leaders is a free-to-access site. If you enjoy our content and find it valuable, please consider subscribing to our Developing Leaders Quarterly publication, this presents academic, business and consultant perspectives on leadership issues in a beautifully produced, small volume delivered to your desk four times a year.


Idea conceived

January 1, 2013

Idea posted

May 2014
challenge block
Can't find the Idea you are after?
Then 'Challenge Us' to source it.


For the less than the price of a coffee a week you can read over 650 summaries of research that cost universities over $1 billion to produce.

Use our Ideas to:

  • Catalyse conversations with mentors, mentees, peers and colleagues.
  • Keep program participants engaged with leadership thinking when they return to their workplace.
  • Create a common language amongst your colleagues on leadership and management practice
  • Keep up-to-date with the latest thought-leadership from the world’s leading business schools.
  • Drill-down on the original research or even contact the researchers directly

Speak to us on how else you can leverage this content to benefit your organization.