In researching Speaking Truth to Power to help people use their own deep wisdom to advance their careers, I stumbled on this great article by James O’Toole on Harvard Business Review called A Culture of Candor. O’Toole gave several examples of corporate cultures that encourage people to challenge authority and who excelled because of it. A great example was 1980’s Motorola, led by CEO Robert Galvin. Galvin credited a deliberate culture of challenging ideas held by those in authority as the fuel that helped Motorola overcome Texas Instruments.
It seems pretty clear from anecdotes like this, that a culture that encourages new ideas and open dialog breeds innovation, but human nature seems to work against us here. The research shows that leaders have a tendency to listen less as they climb the hierarchical ladder and (presumably because more messengers get shot), the more trepidation people have about speaking truth to power to get a boss’s attention.
Corporate cultures are so strong! What’s a leader to do?
Hire a fool.
While there are ways of shaping corporate culture intentionally, I loved O’Toole’s revival of an idea – again from the 80’s – he credited to a man named Verne Morland. Every King Lear needs a fool, “to challenge by jest and conundrum all that is sacred.”
Are Modern Change Agents Fools?
I’m skating on thin archetypal ice here, perhaps, but in the interests of levity and perspective maybe we can look at the ancient role of the fool for insight as to how leaders can listen better and receive information they need, even when others are afraid to speak. The traditional fool was protected by the King, who forgave him his silliness and allowed him to live outside of court rules in order to see the things he could see that the King could not. The fool was tolerated as a useful ally, valued precisely because he spoke his truth. But the fool paid the price of being mocked, humiliated and pushed aside as someone who didn’t matter.
In modern times I hope that we don’t have to ostracize those who play this role. After all, why would more people seek this role if the price was as high as the fool paid in ancient times? It seems barbaric to exact the price of personal pride and self-respect the old kings demanded of their fools.
Valuing the Modern Fool
There is a saying among change management consultants, “You can create change or take credit for it. Pick one.” Sadly this is many people’s experience for speaking up and helping those in power see meaningful alternatives. But as with all things, whether the change agent sacrifices credit is a choice by those in power. If you want advisors surrounding you who do not act like fools, best to reward them and give them credit when credit is due.
The question is, what kind of leader are you? The kind who values the fool or the kind that becomes one?