Bring back the Court Jester….

Whenever politicians or public figures are subjected to unflattering or unfavourable press coverage, they invariably react by saying that they have been quoted or portrayed “out of context”. They frequently complain that their opinions, policies, decisions or behaviour have been misinterpreted, misrepresented or deliberately misconstrued so to create an adverse impression in the mind of the public. In my opinion, they would be well advised to engage the modern equivalent of a Court Jester as part of their professional media management or strategic planning.

In an age of spin-doctors, PR gurus, focus groups and management consultants how do our leaders manage to get themselves in such a pickle through their own words and deeds? One reason is that leaders are susceptible to surrounding themselves with like-minded people, who in turn become dependent upon the leader’s patronage, resulting in “yes-men” and giving rise to group think.

Another cause is the absence of critical thinking, a lack of self-reflection or poor self-awareness. Elsewhere, it may be a simple loss of focus on strategy or purpose, backed by the leader’s self-belief, sense of infallibility and the total denial of doubt – all hubris and no humility.

In days of yore, the Court Jester was an integral part of the royal entourage. Although appointed by virtue of the King’s patronage and serving at his majesty’s pleasure, the Jester had full license to give voice to those thoughts and views that other members of the court were afraid, unwilling or unable to express. Imagine if the Emperor had employed a Court Jester rather than listening to his tailor…. (1)

In our terms, the modern Court Jester would be engaged to provide critical but constructive feedback on proposed policies, strategies or decisions in anticipation of likely public reaction, so that the desired message can be communicated to greater positive effect. Whereas at present, too often leaders appear wrong-footed at press conferences or at shareholder meetings, seem completely ambushed by social media backlash, and express total surprise at harsh judgements made in the Court of Public Opinion.

One business commentator has recently suggested that organizations need to appoint a Chief Reason Officer (CRO), whose primary purpose is to maintain collective focus on strategic purpose and to deliver appropriate organizational outcomes. (2)

I would argue the CRO needs to be the conscience of the organization, be willing to challenge the status quo, and be expected to offer alternative perspectives to counter collective “wisdom” and accepted “common sense”. Maybe the job title should be “Chief Rational Optimist”. (3)

In a previous corporate role, I frequently found myself asking my colleagues, “Why do we do it this way?” to which the answer would often be, “Because we’ve always done it this way.” (Which is like a red rag to a bull.) Consequently, I would challenge common assumptions and question conventional thinking, while striving to present alternative viewpoints with the objective of introducing fresh ideas and generating innovative solutions. In fact, one of my senior colleagues once introduced me to a new member of staff as the organization’s “lateral thinker”. (Which I took as a sincere compliment.)

By appointing the role of a modern Court Jester, I believe organizations may find it much easier to hold themselves accountable for their decisions, and better anticipate the unforeseen, unnecessary and unforgivable consequences of their actions.

(1) In preparing this article, I reflected on the writing of Desiderius Erasmus, author of “In Praise of Folly”: “Man’s mind is so formed that it is far more susceptible to falsehood than to truth.” For a contemporary perspective, see also Chris Patty: “The Court Jester as a Metaphor for Learning and Change”

(2) Bruce Rogers: “Why Companies Need a Chief Reason Officer”

(3) See especially, Jules Goddard and Tony Eccles “Uncommon sense, common nonsense” Profile Books (London, 2012)

9 thoughts on “Bring back the Court Jester….

  1. Thanks Rory – I heartily agree. Your post made me reflect on my own experiences with a colleague who was always the one to out her hand up and say “I don’t get it” in meetings, especially when discussions got jargon heavy. She was just voicing everyone else’s thoughts, but I thought it was a gutsy move as a youngster. She rose to be a CEO.

  2. ‘Jester’ infers humour, a joker. What part does humour play in a successful workplace? Is work more serious these days? Everything is being professionalised. Where would the jester train? Or is the jester someone ‘found’ like an objet trouve? And how much do you pay her? Perhaps it would be better to have a part-time jester who didn’t depend on the one source of income and could be more fearless.

    Here’s another tack. Maybe a business could consult a good primary school Grade 3. If you ask them the difficult questions – which would mean reducing problems to understandable language – they’d give you an honest and humane answer. It may not be the one you want, but at that age they see clearly what is right.

    • There is definitely a role for humour in the workplace, especially good humour, when it’s the message that’s under fire, not the messenger – but the Court Jester as joker risks falling into the role of practical joker, which can lead to humour which is divisive or bullying. The character of David Brent in “The Office” is Court Jester as buffoon, whom nobody respects or takes seriously.

      Perhaps the role of Court Jester needs to be situation and context specific – likewise the desired skill set, experience, type of engagement, and terms of reference. In some cases it might simply be a way to apply de Bono’s 6 Hat Thinking, especially when challenging data, assumptions or outcomes.

      Using Grade 3 as a sounding board might be interesting – out of the mouths of infants…

  3. In the context of the medieval courts, the Royal Fool/Court Jester was hated by the courtiers because he had the king’s ear in a way the courtiers never could. Strengthening their hatred was the knowledge they could not get away with harming the Fool, as the Fool had the King’s personal protection. The best the courtiers could do to reach their aims was try to influence the Fool to present the King with their ideas — a long shot depending on the wisdom level of the Fool, but worth the try nonetheless.

    In the business context, a CRO would need two qualities: the guaranteed protection of the CEO against executive (Court) politics by those who resent the role of the CRO in rejecting their ideas, and who therefore seek to bring the CRO down through politics; secondly, the fortitude to withstand those politics, never letting themselves to be swayed to an idea that serves a particular executive (Courtier) at the expense of the company’s growth. The way human nature plays out in the work place, these would be two very-real factors for a CRO.

    • So, only diplomats and cabinet secretaries need apply for the role of CRO? Seriously, I think a CRO who is too closely aligned with or overly dependent upon the CEO would not survive very long – much better to have collective responsibility and accountability for setting the CRO’s terms of reference, with the CEO acting as more of a sponsor.

      • That sounds like the role of an existing board, then. What you’re calling for is more discipline in due diligence.

  4. Pingback: My Top 10 Blogs | Content in Context

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