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” http://www.tms.com.au/tms12-1d.html
(2) Bruce Rogers: “Why Companies Need a Chief Reason Officer” http://www.forbes.com/sites/brucerogers/2012/12/21/why-companies-need-a-chief-reason-officer/
(3) See especially, Jules Goddard and Tony Eccles “Uncommon sense, common nonsense” Profile Books (London, 2012) http://www.profilebooks.com/isbn/9781846686009/