What ‘Happy Chewbacca’ Teaches About Leadership

What in the world does “Happy Chewbacca” have to do with leadership?

In case you missed it, this is the video that ‘broke the internet’ this week.  Originally posted on Facebook Live, it’s gotten more than 150 million views on Facebook since last Friday.Here’s my challenge to you:

Watch the whole video through (it’s 4:05), and see if you can make it through without either laughing or cracking a smile.

(If you’re pressed for time, you can take the challenge starting at the 2:10 mark.)Can’t do it, can you?

It’s a bravura performance of sheer delight and laughter.

Therein lies the leadership lesson:Emotions are contagious.

The reason this has gone ‘viral’ is because it’s nearly impossible to keep from contracting some of the extreme happiness and joy that Candace Payne (aka ‘Happy Chewbacca’) is radiating.  Not only that, in feeling that happiness, you may want to share it with others.

Maya Angelou was on to something when she wrote,

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Why are emotions so contagious?

We humans are wired to be open-looped: sensitive to the emotions of others.  This empathetic ability is what motivates us to quickly pick up a crying child.  Or jump out of our seats at a horror movie.

With our ‘mirror neurons’, it’s in our nature to pick up on the emotions of others. But not everyone’s emotions carry the same weight.  As social, tribal animals, we put extra focus on our leaders.  How our leaders feel is put under a microscope and magnified.

Thus, leaders’ emotions are the most contagious of all.In an earlier post, I shared a story about how a leader sent emails to every member of his team for half a day, and each email was sent WRITTEN IN CAPITAL LETTERS.  (He’d accidentally left the Caps Lock on.)  Everyone spent the day avoiding him, because they thought he was really angry.

When you sense your leader is upset, how do you respond?

Does their stress become your stress?

If they’re anxious, do you catch it, too?

Does it look something like this:



Let’s hope your experience isn’t quite that bad.

But the sad truth is that Darth Vader and his team may not be that far fetched.

Our brains are especially sensitive to threats. Biologically, being able to quickly respond to threat is a brilliant survival strategy.  It’s what kept our ancestors alive on the Savannah, when the saber-toothed tiger was chasing them.  This fight/flight response worked wonders:  it got people to run like hell and live another day.

The bad news is that this same biological system of flight/flight is not designed for constant daily low grade stress.  (The kind of stress  you might feel daily at work.)

If  you have an chronically negative boss, they’re creating an emotional contagion that you pick up on.  Your body’s response is to produce a constant drip of stress chemicals (adrenaline, cortisol) into your bloodstream to compensate.

This is what will make you feel anxious and worried.  And, not only does this stress impact your emotions, it’ll impact your physical health as well. These chemicals are toxic to the human body.

In a study of British nurses, who worked for different bosses on different days of the week, it was found that the days that they worked for the good boss, their blood pressure was normal.  On days with the bad boss, their blood pressure increased so significantly that they could be considered hypertensive.

Another study, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, surveyed specific leadership behaviors, which included:

  1. My boss gives me the information I need

  2. My boss is good at pushing through and carrying out changes

  3. My boss explains goals and sub-goals for our work so that I understand what they mean for my particular part of the task

  4. I have a clear picture of what my boss expects of me

  5. My boss shows that he/she cares how things are for me and how I feel

  6. I have sufficient power in relation to my responsibilities

  7. My boss takes the time to become involved in his/her employees’ professional development

  8. My boss encourages my participation in the scheduling of my work

  9. I am praised by my boss if I have done something good

  10. I am criticized by my boss if I have done something that is not good

The results showed that leaders who rated “poorly” on these behaviors were more likely to have employees who suffered from higher incidences of heart disease.In other words, a bad boss might kill  you.

If the emotional and physical consequences of negativity weren’t enough, consider this: people do better work–achieve greater results– in an emotionally positive environment.

For proof: think to your own experience: when you’ve done your best work, how were you feeling?  Most clients I’ve worked with report feelings such as:

  • Focused

  • Calm

  • Energized

  • Enthusiastic

  • Alive

  • “In The Zone”

As a leader, you set the tone for the mood of your team.

What mood will it be?

What ideas do you have to bring more “Chewbacca” and less “Vader” into your leadership?  Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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