Court Jesters: An Endangered Species

Court jesters or corporate rebels invite people to reflect, rethink and think differently and protect the organization and its rulers from hubris and inertia. But is this necessary in a crisis? Is this art or can it go away?

Orig­i­nal­ly, court jesters were not enter­tain­ers or come­di­ans, but rather a social insti­tu­tion of per­mis­si­ble crit­i­cism. Due to their “fool’s free­dom”, they were out­side the hier­ar­chy and were exempt from the strict social norms at court. They were there­fore able and allowed to crit­i­cize those in pow­er in a sub­tle and wit­ty man­ner and to encour­age reflec­tion and rethink­ing. They were the per­son­i­fied memen­to mori and sup­posed to pro­tect against exu­ber­ance and complacency.

What we need are a few crazy peo­ple, look at what we have reached with the nor­mal ones.

George Bernard Shaw

Exact­ly that still has a val­ue in mod­ern times that goes far beyond good enter­tain­ment. Espe­cial­ly in times of change orga­ni­za­tions need this intel­li­gent provo­ca­tion and irri­ta­tion. Court jesters or cor­po­rate rebels invite to reflect, rethink and think dif­fer­ent­ly and pro­tect the orga­ni­za­tion from hubris and inertia.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, when things get tight, one or the oth­er man­ag­er quick­ly finds him­self con­front­ed with the ques­tion “Is this art or can it go away?” After all, in times of cri­sis the ranks have to be closed and every­one has to pull togeth­er to use just two pop­u­lar nar­ra­tives of this dif­fi­cult time.

As under­stand­able as the desire for uni­ty, effi­cien­cy and ulti­mate­ly obe­di­ence in times of cri­sis is, it is nev­er­the­less dam­ag­ing in the long term. The same argu­ment could be used in dif­fi­cult times to over­ride the sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers in the state and mas­sive­ly restrict essen­tial free­dom rights of cit­i­zens and the press. Many peo­ple, and some­times even courts, right­ly react very sen­si­tive­ly to this. (That this in turn is exploit­ed by all kinds of obscure and some­times dan­ger­ous groups is just as prob­lem­at­ic, but a dif­fer­ent story.)

I dis­ap­prove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

Eve­lyn Beat­rice Hall

Of course, free­dom of expres­sion is annoy­ing. Of course, orga­ni­za­tion­al rebels and court jesters are irri­tat­ing. That is exact­ly their job. And of course it dis­turbs the uni­ty. And that is a good thing. In the state as well as in the cor­po­rate world. The intel­lec­tu­al mono­cul­ture of con­for­mi­ty and con­sen­sus may be pleas­ant for the cap­tain on the bridge in the short term, but in the long run it is more like­ly to be part of the prob­lem than part of the solu­tion. Right now, more than ever, diver­si­ty and dis­sent are urgent­ly need­ed if we are not only to sur­vive the cri­sis but also to enjoy the day after tomor­row in the organization.

Only after the last jester has been dis­missed, the last grass­roots move­ment has been dis­solved, the last free space has been elim­i­nat­ed, will you real­ize that with obe­di­ence one can­not shape the day after tomorrow.


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Frank Druhm 14. September 2020 Reply

Court jester is not an orga­ni­za­tion­al cat­e­go­ry. True court jesters are not mem­bers of orga­ni­za­tions because orga­ni­za­tions pri­mar­i­ly demand work per­for­mance. Sug­ges­tions for oper­a­tional improve­ments are acces­sories for which one receives a “warm hand­shake”. The true and only court jesters have joined the col­or­ful guild of orga­ni­za­tion­al con­sul­tants and pro­pa­gan­dists for a bet­ter, hap­pi­er, peace­ful and suc­cess­ful life. They alone have the free­dom to be cred­i­ble and to suc­ceed, to live — or to fail. Only they are allowed to say ‘out­ra­geous things’ and not to ques­tion the organization.
See: Fuchs, Peter (2005): Hof­nar­ren und Organ­i­sa­tions­ber­ater — Zur Funk­tion der Nar­retei, Hof­nar­ren­tum und Organ­i­sa­tions­ber­atung [b]. In: Peter Fuchs: Con­tours of Moder­ni­ty. Essays on Sys­tems The­o­ry II. ed. by Marie-Christin Fuchs. Biele­feld: tran­script pub­lish­ing house, S. 17 – 36

Marcus Raitner 14. September 2020 Reply

Thanks a lot for this quote, dear Frank. Maybe it’s real­ly like this and I put my efforts in the wrong place …

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