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Surely You Jest…

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.

2 comments on “Surely You Jest…

  1. Katie O'Kew
    June 3, 2015

    Is “Jester” the right word? Jesters are giving to jesting, are they not,

    which is close to joking or teasing. The court jester was often able to

    spesk out – as if 'just joling' – because ot the few who paid attention

    to him (it was invariably a male) they probably didn't take anything

    he said veery seriously, een though his outbursts (if not the result of

    some mental pathology) may have been valuable as a new way of

    viewing a matter.

     

    On the other hand, giving someone the title of “Corporate Jester”

    would quickly lead to an erasure of the original meaning of this

    old-world word; it might even assume sinister or even threatening

    undertones.

     

    I have to say that in my opnion every strong leader knows how to

    appeal to the pseudo-jest when that seems like the best way to

    startle a team member (or the whole team) into a new viewpoint.

     

    Barrie

     

  2. kencoffman
    June 3, 2015

    The original jesters were simply entertainers, singers, orators, jokers, jugglers and acrobats, but the role evolved into a parallel path for information to the Emperor or King. The jester could say things that could not or would not otherwise be said. Back then, the official channels did not convey complete and accurate information and that situation has not changed today in the corporate world. No matter how comfortable it is, the CEO cannot rely only on digested, processed and packaged spin from members of his or her staff. That's why management-by-walking around is important. That's why the corporate jester role should be embraced by the meme-makers in academia. They will catch up sooner or later. Thank you for your challenge and commentary!

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