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.

Share This Post

By Marcus Raitner

Hi, I'm Marcus. I'm convinced that elephants can dance. Therefore, I accompany organizations on their way towards a more agile way of working. Since 2010 I regularly write about leadership, digitization, new work, agility, and much more in this blog. More about me.


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

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

Leave a Reply