You may be familiar with the phrase, “an ability to talk truth to power.” This has always been the role of the jester, or fool. The latter moniker was probably adopted as an insurance against misinterpretation and reprimand… “I’m just the fool, you can’t take anything I say seriously.”
The usefulness of both this skill and role have survived the age of kings, queens, emperors and courts and today, they have something to teach those of us who lead in more a contemporary context.
One of the risks Executive Leadership Teams and Boards face is that few of our people want to share bad news with us.
This should come as no surprise: historically, we’ve often been very quick to punish the bearers of bad news, so keeping your head down was rather a wise strategy.
This is obviously problematic – if something is going awry within our organization, we need to know about it before it becomes critical or perhaps even catastrophic.
Recently, the excellent Canadian journalist and social commentator, Malcolm Gladwell, in his podcast Revisionist History, suggested that satire didn’t work. Of course, I’m oversimplifying the depth of his assertion, but I’d also argue that one of the issues with this observation is that the case study cited (recent American elections), was also too narrow both in terms of time and effect.
Essentially, the broader piece explored how American satirists, people like Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah of The Daily Show, Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey and the team at SNL and Comics like Bill Maher of Real Time fame, had failed to stem the rise of the Alt Right and that in fact, supporters of both sides of politics were able to project their own views onto satire and read into it their own interpretation.
Three observations here: Firstly, I’m clearly paraphrasing Gladwell’s podcast to make a point. Secondly, I think it would be a disservice to the US voting public to suggest that the election hinged only on the ineffectiveness or otherwise of satire, and lastly, I think that the greater effect of such satire is still in play and shaping opinions on both side of the divide. Conservatives are no less adept at the use of their own style of ridicule than are liberals.
This observation is born out by history. In fact, what we know from studying human behavior more broadly is that ridicule, in all its forms, can be a rather reliable (if clumsy) behavioral modifier.
The parent who admonishes a young child by suggesting they are “acting like a baby”, the sibling who laughs at another’s fashion choices and the peer pressure to join in an act of cruelty for fear of being perceived as soft, are, albeit undesirable, strong demonstrations of humor’s effectiveness as a weapon.
However, humor need not always be weaponized, in fact, it can be used to quite the opposite effect.
A skillful use of humor can anesthetize an otherwise unpleasant conversation, it can build instant rapport through a recognition of shared experience and our shared humanity and importantly, at lease as far as this post is concerned, it can challenge authority and rigidity in a playful and relatively safe fashion (assuming of course it is done with skill and sensitivity).
So, what are the keys to playing the fool without appearing foolish?
1. Play the issue not the individual
I recall a conversation comedian Chris Rock shared with Jerry Seinfeld, Louis CK and Ricky Gervais on the nature of comedy. Rock stated that the rule that the writing team on his show adhered to was to work the issue, the story or the incident, not the person or personality involved. i.e. “That was stupid, not YOU are stupid.”
In other words, he resisted the cheap laugh at the expense of a particular person in favor of striking a point against their position.
In doing likewise, you can remove or decrease the desire for reflexive defensiveness. A choice can be wrong without necessarily making the decision maker wrong.
2. Demonstrate the personal risk without increasing it.
Whilst ridicule and satire have their place, they are perhaps best used to create a sense of how a particular action might be perceived or critiqued by the broader community than delivered as a direct critique of those who are making the decision.
In this way, humor can be framed as a reputational risk assessment rather than as a glib criticism designed to score points.
By creating an arm’s length of distance through the use of phrases such as, “That might open us up to…” or, “People might say…” you free yourself to simulate parody without having to own it or its consequences.
3. If you’re going to be funny… be funny
If people typically don’t tell you you’re funny, you’re probably not.
This is perhaps the most critical point in this post. Too often, otherwise serious or quite emotionally intelligent people will attempt to “be funny” in a leadership meeting and end up in waaaaaay inappropriate territory. You know who I’m talking about and if you don’t, it’s you!
Reassuringly, it’s entirely OK to not be funny – humor is not everyone’s gift. It is not everyone’s role to speak truth to power, however, all of us can support it and be freed by it when it is spoken.
4. If you’re a leader, or you aspire to be, learn to love being heckled
A maxim dating back to the wild west of the United States posits that you can recognize a pioneer by the arrows sticking out of their back. The same, I’m afraid, often holds true for leadership.
Interestingly, the default response of most stand-up comedians when they begin their careers is to shut hecklers down with pre-rehearsed insults and zingy one-liners. However, as a comic develops their confidence and stage presence, there is a playfulness they learn to enjoy with their audiences – a dance they relish, even with those who cross the line.
Of course, they are still very much in control, but they have an ability take what is thrown at them, build on it and in doing so, earn both respect and develop a more bullet proof set.
Too often leaders and boards operate in echo chambers supported by managers who are too afraid to speak truth to power. This leaves them to navigate their organizations guided by half-truths, faulty intelligence and unconscious biases.
Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from the Jester – is to be a leader who gets, and can take, a joke!