Monday, July 25, 2011

I Wish There Were More Fools in the World!

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.


DavidJHall said...

Absolutely Terry,
We are in grave danger of seeing a challenge as an afront rather than an opportunity. The phrase " Many a wise word spoken in jest " comes to mind.The idea appears to have been recorded first by Geoffrey Chaucer with the line, "A man may seye full sooth (truth) in game and pley," in his "The Canterbury Tales" (circa 1387).

In "King Lear" (1605), William Shakespeare wrote,"Jesters do oft prove prophets"; and some years later, the modern version was rendered in the "Roxburghe Ballad" (circa 1665): "Many a true word hath been spoken in jest."
Lets have more jest and the wisdom to see the wisdom in it!

DavidJHall said...

Absolutely. Why si it that people with power see a challange as an afront rather than as an opportunity?I am reminded of the phrase " many a true word spoken in jest" The first author to express this thought in English was probably Geoffrey Chaucer in The Cook's Tale, 1390:

But yet I pray thee be not wroth for game;
A man may say full sooth [the truth] in game and play.

Shakespeare later came closer to our contemporary version of the expression, in King Lear, 1605:

Jesters do oft prove prophets.
Let us have more jesters and more wise people to see the wisdom in the words.

Terence Brake said...

Thanks, David. Let's keep subversive foolishness alive and well!