Leadership and the fool…

Don't Laugh at Me ('cause I'm a Fool)


Today is April Fools´ day and the news is full of suggested pranks to play on colleagues and bosses. The fool in the workplace, however, is still dismissed (sometimes literally) for lack of seriousness.  In the British comedy classic, Dad´s Army (US version the Rear Guard), Private Pike´s foolish suggestions are frequently rebuffed with “you stupid boy” by the platoon commander, Captain Mannering.


But Private Pike is no prankophile, his unfiltered comments derive more from a miscalculation of social convention than leaving banana skins around the parade ground; more Shakespearean in complexity than Punk´d.

The fool in Shakespeare provides both comic relief and observational reality/reason. The fool in King Lear, for example, openly criticises the king for his lack of foresight concerning the division of his kingdom:

why, this fellow has banished two on’s daughters,
and did the third a blessing against his will

The perceptive fool, through the mask of comedy, voices some disagreeable truths that supports the king´s transformation toward truth and self-awareness.

As this study shows, fear factor plays a big part in preventing people from speaking freely,  The cultural norm in large organisations errs on the side of caution, fearing reprisal. This can have devastating consequences; many recent organisational failings including Enron, Royal Dutch Shell, Toshiba Corp, Volkswagen and Third Avenue Management, have stemmed from a leadership culture that quashes open dialogue (see here).

The effective leader distinguishes between venting (which is a destructive energy) voicing and the saboteur; moreover, the effective leader overlooks the fact that the fool may lack some of the dialogic subtleties expounded in Willian Issac´s classic text Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together which advocates ´unfolding´ in a broader skillset of participation, coherence and awareness.

The modern workplace is embracing comedy as this BBC report suggests; yet we are swift to deride (and sometimes dismiss) the fool.  For the savvy leader prepared to tolerate their flagrant disregard for convention and seniority, the fool has an important role to play in the modern workplace . Often cloaked in a discourteous comment or unfiltered remark, the fool can express a hard organizational truth that others are thinking but dare not surface. As in the case of Lear, they can help the leader gain some powerful organisational insights and self-awareness.

by Ric Kelly PhD.

Did you know… This well-known leadership quote from Shakespeare´s Twelfth Night was uttered by the fool.