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As a cartoonist, I like to envision things. When you picture leadership, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Maybe your first instinct is to think of a man, because leaders are still mostly men. At least the ones in positions we typically think of as leadership positions: presidents, CEOs and bankers. But there are other types of leaders, and these people are not in the limelight. Daily, they are quietly inspiring others in small ways.

These leaders come in all shapes, sizes and genders. They are the type of people who make us want to be better, make us want to achieve more, make us want to help more. These are leaders in our local communities who inspire us to live up to our potential, perhaps because they have done so. Many times we are not even aware they are leading us in any way.

Just like there are different types of leaders, there are different ways to lead. One can 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 who have a mission or a cause, people who never relax, who do not know how to play. They are too busy leading people. 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 use humor can do so to express a shared humanity, a common understanding of life. Amy Poehler does this well in her speech at Variety’s Power of Women 2013 awards where she advocates for activism, service and support for the Worldwide Orphans Foundation. When used well, it can express vulnerability, thus communicating a commonality. 

Now what if you put together women and humor? I think you can get change. When you combine leadership and humor, I believe women can become extremely effective leaders.

In my forties I started thinking, “Why don’t I do something with the content of my cartoons to make people think about the stupid rules that we’re following as well as laugh?” 

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.

Women have traditionally been the caretakers in cultures, and so know the rules intimately because they have to pass them down to the next generation. Because the rules are often changing, women also have to know them to ensure their own survival. 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 change them than with humor? Thus, if women know the rules so well, they then should know how to make fun of them.

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 shift perceptions and public thinking.

Women can use this humor as they lead, and help others to understand what needs to be changed. Humor is fun, it can be enjoyable.

When there are difficult tasks at hand, humor makes the difficult easier to swallow. 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. And it can then be enjoyable to move forward. Through this shared humanity expressed in humor, I believe it can help women and men, leaders and followers, change the world – one laugh at a time.

Liza Donnelly is a contributor to The New Yorker and Her latest book, Women On Men is a collection of her work about women using humor. Donnelly is founder and editor of, a cultural envoy for the U.S. State Department and a TED speaker.

To view more of Liza’s work, visit her website and follow her on Twitter @lizadonnelly.