There I am watching “King Lear” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival when it hits me: there is a place for the fool in our modern day.
In the play, King Lear had at his side a person we refer to as “the fool.” It was the fool’s job to give the king an alternate perspective on current events. To do his job well, the fool needed immunity from punishment for the kind of behavior and talk that other subjects of the court would have been punished for. That way, the fool could offer the king the brutal truth. He could look the king square in the face and tell him he was acting like a madman. The king did not have to accept the fool’s word, but he did make a social contract with the fool that he would not punish him for his words, no matter how infuriating or disrespectful they may be.
In our day, we have a place for the role of the fool in modern business. The CEO of any company works at such a different level from the rest of the employees that he needs a perspective from below. That is the perspective the fool can provide. A CEO may not know that a new benefits package that looks great on paper and works for him is actually very bad for a majority of the employees. All of the company’s business metrics might be good, but the CEO may not recognize that the employees are all disgruntled because they don’t have enough leeway to work efficiently. Or maybe the CEO knows that is the case but won’t internalize the message until it is given in brutally honest, plain language. This is where someone acting in the role of the fool comes in. With immunity, the fool can give the employees’ perspective so that the CEO can form a complete picture of the situation.
Some might think that we don’t need this role in business today and that, especially in startups where transparency is often touted, people can just go talk to the CEO and tell him what is wrong. That is true to a certain extent, and might be just fine in a small company. Once the company grows past 25 or so, those lines of communication are much harder to keep open. Not everyone has a personal relationship with the CEO and thus cannot put themselves on the line to say something potentially reproachful. So even at a small company, the fool can be valuable.