What I Learned About Leadership from Reading Mad Magazine

Posted 07.17.2019

You may have seen the recent news that Mad magazine is ending regular publication. On the other hand, you may not have known it was still being published (I didn’t) or, depending on your age, have even heard of Mad.  I definitely have. As a tweener and a young teen, there was a three to four year run where I read pretty much every issue.

As a matter of fact, the copies of Mad in the photo that accompanies this post all belong to me. In thinking about writing this, I remembered that I had a bunch of old comic books and rock and roll magazines stored in a plastic box in my closet. I haven’t looked through it in years but figured there were some issues of Mad in there. Sure enough, I found a couple of dozen of them from the era of peak Mad.

If you don’t have your own copies and want a quick recap on the heyday of Mad, I recommend Tim Krieder’s opinion piece in the New York Times, “The World According to Mad Magazine.” My favorite line from his article is “Grown-ups who worried that Mad was a subversive influence… were 100 percent correct.” After browsing through some of my old issues today, I completely agree. I don’t know if my parents actually ever looked at Mad, but if they did, I’m amazed that they let me read it.

For good and for bad, Mad influenced me in my formative years. Reading some of the stuff that I read back then makes me cringe today. My old issues of Mad are definitely reflective of where the U.S. was in terms of race, gender and sexuality in the 1970’s. (Of course, given some of the headlines we’ve been reading regularly lately, it’s reasonable to wonder if we’ve really come that far since then.)

On the other hand, I can see how Mad started shaping my 10 to 13 year old brain in ways that, for the most part, have been useful influences on the way I’ve engaged with and led others over the years. There are a few things in particular that stand out for me:

leadership, mad magazine, zapWords MatterMad was full of plays on words. The magazine’s writers were also highly skilled at conveying a lot with a few words. One photo article I found today was a “Mad Look at Then and Now,” where they juxtaposed two photos with a “from this to that” caption. My favorite was a side by side of Moses holding up the Ten Commandments next to a picture of Nixon holding up his arms during a parade. The caption was From PROPHET… to LOSS. And, of course, they were famous for their movie and television show parodies. A few of my 7th grade buddies and I were so inspired that we produced an issue of our own Mad knock-off called ZAP! I have a copy of that too (yes, I know it’s strange).  We came up with our own satire on The Exorcist that we called Extrasick. Today, I try to keep my writing style casual, conversational and, hopefully a little bit smart and occasionally funny. A lot of that took root while reading Mad.

The Difference Between What They Say and What They Think or DoMad was always calling out hypocrites and their hypocritical actions. One little illustrated piece I found today was on “What Coaches Say in Public and in Private.” For example, the football coach says in public, “We won because we stuck to our original game plan!” and in private says, “We were just lucky they fumbled more than we did!” Another issue provided a handy guide to “Bulling Your Way Through Election Campaigns” where, in true Mad-Libs fashion, you could pick your topic like foreign policy or the economy, choose a pre-written draft of an all-purpose statement and then select two adjectives from columns A and B and a noun from column C. And, voila, you kind of sound like you know what you’re talking about. Learning at an early age to focus on what people say versus what they do served me well later in life when I started coaching leaders. If what you say doesn’t line up with what you do, people will eventually check out on you and your culture will fall apart. Who would have guessed that Mad would end up being a guide to assessing corporate cultures and their leaders?

Question Assumptions  – In my years of being a leader and working with leaders, I’ve always found “Why are we doing it this way?” to be a very useful question. That impetus to question assumptions (and quite often authority) probably started with reading Mad. Their editors and writers were ruthless in leveraging “the way we do things around here” for laughs whether it was a mock catalog of worthless junk sold through direct mail, a take-down of the power and light company or any number of other absurdities you encounter in everyday life. Learning to step back and question the assumptions about the way things are done around here has proven to be valuable in both being a leader and coaching leaders.

All of that said, I’ve also learned, as I wrote years ago, that being a smart-ass can only get you so far. It can be charming and funny until it’s not. In reading Tim Kreider’s and other writers recollections and appreciations of Mad, I had one of those almost embarrassing flashes of self-knowledge. It was like, “Oh, so that’s where that came from!” Like most things in life, the impact of reading so much Mad magazine as a kid wasn’t all good and wasn’t all bad for me – it was a mix. So, I’ll continue on with the journey of leveraging the good and mitigating the bad. That’s a big part of life and leadership isn’t it? We keep on keeping on or, as Alfred E. Neuman might ask, “What, me worry?”

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