One day, I expect Stanford and Harvard Business School to embrace the role of Corporate Jester along with the trendy memes of Inclusive Human Capital Management (IHCM) and Valued Enterprise Apostles (VAE). I thought the idea of a corporate jester was something I dreamed up myself, but there are books to read (The Secret Life of a Corporate Jester and The Corporate Fool) and you’ll find chatter about the idea on the web. So, I didn’t invent the concept or the critical need that transcends the ages to our modern corporate life. However, if you haven’t thought about this, the idea is worth exploring.
What role did the jester play in history? From The Secret Life of a Corporate Jester :
“Some insightful people noticed something interesting happening in the courts. Few of the advisors ever challenged accepted wisdom, questioned status quo, or voiced concerns over fear of displeasing their leader. The advisors frequently chose to keep their opinions, facts and perspectives to themselves…when speaking up could have greatly influenced the leader’s understanding of a given situation. Because of this, leaders ended up making faulty decisions due to the lack of awareness and understanding of all the variables involved.”
In short, what practical function does the jester perform?
From Fools Are Everywhere, The Court Jester Around the World: “…other court functionaries cooked up the king's facts for him before delivery; the jester delivered them raw.”
As a leader, limiting sources of information to controlled channels is an overwhelming temptation. Who wants to deal with chaos and the hard work of separating information from noise? Are the sources trustworthy? Are they knowledgeable? Do they have the courage to tell the truth no matter how much it makes them look bad? How should the leader react to bad news? Calmly with thoughtful consideration or with anger and open-loop flailing? If the boss plays the blame game and comes unglued when facing things he or she does not want to hear, it becomes all the more unlikely that vital information will flow freely in a timely manner.
This leads us to the biggest challenge of the corporate jester: how do we do our good work with ever-present good humor when confronted with the most horrible dysfunction or dishonesty—when situations are far beyond humor? It’s required, believe me, or it will be your head joining mine on a pike in front of HQ.
What do you think? Do you have tales to tell about being a jester or seeing one in action? Tell it to me straight in the comment section with a quip or a song.