No, I’m Not Jesting

I’m in Europe at the moment for some client conferences, so I thought I’d do a Tip on one of my favourite European characters — the Jester. I’ve always had an unusual fascination with Jesters. It’s not their musical or acrobatic skills that interests me. It’s more their role in speaking the truth, and naming the political shenanigans that people in power often use to maintain their influence and control.

In Shakespeare’s plays, the Jester was often a complex, intelligent character who would speak freely, sharing their insights on important issues. Shakespeare’s Kings often used their Jesters as a source of honest, agenda free counsel. It is ironic that Jesters were called “fools”, as they were anything but. It is also ironic that, by not seeking status, the Jester’s status was preserved, as he was the only member of the King’s court immune from being punished for being impertinent or making fun of unpleasant facts everyone was avoiding.

Someone I’d regard as a sort of modern day Jester was musician, Frank Zappa. Observe the Interviews with him on YouTube and you’ll see a genius Jester in action, delivering witty, offbeat, factual and amazingly coherent political insights. Zappa was also a musical genius and a super hot guitarist, but I like him more for his Jesterial commentaries.

Illustration of Frank Zappa

I once attended a leadership development program with Dr Roger Collins, Professor Emeritus at the University of NSW. He asked us to think about the characteristics of the ideal management consultant. When it was my turn I simply said “The Jester”. He gave me a knowing smile and said “Yes, I like that”.

I think every CEO needs a type of Jester. Someone on the sidelines, keeping the decision makers grounded. Someone capable of naming the unnamable, and dispensing wise, honest, agenda free advice. And someone prepared to make fun of the petty power games that are unfortunately so common in our organisations. The problem of course is, people don’t like to be mocked, particularly those in power. So our modern day Jesters would probably regularly find themselves looking for their next gig.

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