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Jokes aside: leaders remind us to lighten up too

MCGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. -- There's nothing like an April Fools' joke, or being tricked by one, to really get your attention.

It happened to me in April 1, 2010, during my time as a joint staff journalist at the National Guard Bureau when every assignment seemed critical. I was always traveling, I was under deadlines and I was certain that I would not make it to my next active duty tour if I slowed down. I wrote incessantly from the command information office near the Pentagon.

There were lots of general officers and chiefs to support. Those top leaders, who were much busier than I was, always seemed relaxed, approachable and ready to lift spirits through their humor. In contrast, I felt a bit stressed and exhausted. There seemed no time to think about jokes.

My coworker - who also had a good sense of humor - pronounced one too many times that no writing assignment coming down the chain would surprise him. We would sometimes cover the most seemingly odd event - on weekdays if we were lucky.

I'll never forget the feeling of astonishment when he emailed me an Army news assignment released that day about the Pentagon moving to Kansas. It took me a good minute to realize the hoax and what day it was.

"Yeah, it's a joke, Smith," he said. "Lighten up."       

The April Fools' Day pranks - rather convincing on some years - can trick us. We lose ourselves in time and missions. We believe that everything is serious because we have serious jobs. Then something like a joke from our leaders reminds us that it's also important to keep each other grounded.

The day makes me realize that I'm sometimes guilty like everyone else in focusing too hard on the task. I'll laugh, but only when I am not self-absorbed. Then my workload feels lighter, I feel happier and I feel confident.

Don't get me wrong, I don't condone practical jokes as a form of leadership. They can get out of hand, become a safety risk, or cause distress at the sake of others. However, I do appreciate this once-a-year tradition to let our guard down a little bit and not take life too earnest.

In all of the interesting quotes I came across about it, I liked the Roman lyric poet Horace, who said something like, "mix a little foolishness with your serious plans. It is lovely to be silly at the right moment."

I believe that there's no good military leader who doesn't get that. He or she has to motivate the ranks to do their jobs. The good ones can persuade through light humor and through their humility that we all get fooled.

Colin Powell famously said that perpetual optimism is a force multiplier. I've read about and admire his career. He led uncountable numbers as an Army officer, as joint chiefs' chairman and as secretary of state. He certainly knew the value of levity in leadership.

The generals and chiefs who speak during graduation ceremonies here at the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center give amusing insights into their careers. They freely laugh on stage at themselves and get Airmen to laugh with them, as a means to relay what they learned about leadership.

I don't remember any jokes written in the Air Force's NCO academy or Airman leadership school lessons, but I am certain that our instructors would not get very far in the classroom without some funny anecdotes too.

I do remember when student flights took turns giving the morning news on closed circuit TV at my NCO academy. It was rather stiff, dreary stuff, so my flight decided to give our broadcast using sock puppets - picture the Muppets on DoD News. The commandant might not have liked the hoax - I believe puppets were banned afterward - but it sure lightened up our flight.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Don't get too serious. Pause to laugh at yourself and with others. You and I might become better leaders for it.

By the way, the TEC announced that it is offering acrobatics and juggling courses this summer ... April Fools.