What do I mean? Aren’t there enough fools in the world?
I can only describe some of the corporate cultures I’ve worked in as toxic. For example, during the first week in my first job in the U.S., my manager gave me two guidelines for working effectively in the organization (a Wall Street firm):
1. Trust no one, and
2. Murder before suicide
I was expecting a different kind of new employee orientation, but at least it was honest. It wasn’t one of those orientations where only the public ‘sweetness and light’ face of the organization is on display. Medieval royal courts were not so dissimilar from some modern organizations – powerful monarchs surrounded by fawning courtiers wheeling, dealing, backstabbing, and manipulating to gain favors from the king or queen. They are typically ‘survival of the fittest’, bullying cultures where anything goes and winner takes all. There is often, however, something missing from the modern organization – the Fool or Court Jester.
The Fool wasn’t in the Court simply to amuse – speaking truth to power was a dangerous job, but a necessary one. The Fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear continually points out the mistakes made by the King (until he disappears mysteriously in Act III). Elizabeth I rebuked one of her Fools for not being severe enough with her, and it seems that James VI of Scotland was tricked by his Fool into abdicating his crown for a number of days. The Fool was making the point that the King’s habit of not reading documents before signing them could lead to unintended consequences.
We’ve seen the aftermath of toxic cultures in the recent banking crises, and the goings-on in the Murdoch media empire.
Make sure your collaborations can tolerate a Fool – someone able to uncover and challenge unexamined assumptions and beliefs, prick overinflated egos, attack conformity for its own sake, and deflate preposterous delusions of grandeur.