Monday, December 26, 2011

The Modern Fool

Although most often associated with English courts of Medieval and Renaissance times, the Court Jester has actually appeared throughout history as an important member of Royal Courts around the world.  Jesters came in two flavors, the "natural fool" and the "licensed fool".  The natural fool appears to have been pure entertainment for the court, and was often afflicted with some type of mental or physical disability.  (This period of history was not known for its political correctness!)  The licensed fool was a completely different case.  Their job was to be critical of the Monarch and the Court - often using fairly severe ridicule to make his point.  Court Jesters were given great latitude by their Monarch, allowing them to say things that no other member of the Court would dare to say.  They often made enemies of powerful members of the Court, but as long as they were favored by the Monarch, they were safe.  For example, a story is told of a Persian Fool who, when the Shah asked whether there was a shortage of food, said: "Yes, I see your Majesty is eating only 5 times a day."   Fools were also often responsible for telling the Monarch bad news.  When the French fleet was destroyed by the English Navy in the Battle of Sluys, the French Jester told King Philipe VI that the English Sailors "don't even have the guts to jump into the water like our brave French."

I believe the modern corporation has revived the ancient tradition of the Court Jester.  The modern Court Jester is now known as the advisory business consultant.  The business consultant is now a fixture in the boardrooms of many powerful CEOs and corporate elite.  You have probably seen them - they hover near the seat of power, acting as personal advisors and confidants to their corporate monarch.  Just like the Fools of Olde England, the business consultant is often the only member of the executive team that can truly be openly critical of anyone or any idea without fear of repercussions.  As long as they are favored by their benefactor, they can wield enormous power, and they may have more direct access to the top decision maker than any other member of the executive team.  Very few people outside of the top corporate tier are even aware of the business consultant, let alone the influence they carry.  They are paid to stay behind the throne, and they are often very good at working from the shadows.

From where I'm sitting, that sounds like a pretty sweet gig.  Sure, your picture isn't going to be displayed in the company's annual report - but in many companies, you may enjoy a much longer tenure than the majority of the senior leadership team.  But more importantly, the business consultant enjoys a freedom of thought and action that is found nowhere else in the corporation.  In most corporations today, it seems that to get to the big table, one of the most important skills is the ability to interpret, process and respond in veiled and encrypted corpspeak.  No one speaks their mind and everything that is said must be instantly and carefully analyzed for hidden maneuverings that may result in a loss of status among your peers.  This seems to go beyond mere "politics" - it seems to have risen to the level of a TV drama - every week there is a new crisis, and alliances shift every 10 minutes.

Only the business consultant seems to be above the daily fray.  It's not that they are unaware of the nonsense - they are absolutely listening to, and understanding, the corpspeak debates - it's just that they are much more likely to cut through the BS and say what really needed to be said without trying to hide it within multiple layers of personal ladder-climbing moves.

I find this a curious example of human behavior - and I also find it fascinating that this type of behavior has been present within groups of powerful human beings for thousands of years.  What is it about the human condition that causes this model to so often be repeated?  It baffles me why a corporate president would populate the executive offices with the best minds they can find - and then still feel the need to hire an external consultant as a "trusted advisor".

I suppose it is possible that the executive business consultant is simply another status symbol - like the corner office, the first class travel and the $1000 designer shoes - all the cool kids have at least one.  If that is the primary purpose, that's very disturbing.  These same leadership teams are downsizing employees, shrinking benefits and requiring employees to take unpaid days off to meet analyst estimates - and yet they are paying a business consultant an amount equal to the salary of 3 or 4 employees.

Another explanation is that the use of consultants may be seen by the executive team as a way to reduce personal risk.  When a decision goes bad, it at least gives the president a way to deflect some of the blame - "Hey, I was advised by the best consultant in the industry and we did everything they said to do.  No one could have known this was a bad idea."  Of course, the consultant will be fired, but the president might survive.

I know this sounds cynical - and (of course) no executive would ever admit to these reasons - but I think they make about as much sense as having a roomful of bajillion dollar senior executives that need a consultant to tell them how to run their own company.  At least the medieval courts had an excuse - the royalty was composed of Lords & Ladies that inherited their posts, and eventually, the royal gene pool started getting pretty shallow.  As far as I know, inbreeding isn't typically a problem in corporate boardrooms - yet...

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