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The Corporate Fool and the
Search for Healthy Organisations

by David Firth

Organisations are intellectual products. They are complex webs of beliefs and knowledge, the result of how people agree to think about such things as customers, the future, business processes, buildings, competition. Organisations are also social creations - they are webs of convention, rules and behaviour, the result of how people agree to relate to each other. To change an organisation you need to challenge both the intellectual and social assumptions that underpin it.

One of the preferred ways of changing companies is leadership – getting someone to model the new way of doing things. The trouble is that transformational leaders are few and far between. By the time people rise to true levels of power and influence, their instinct to burn down the house has left them. After all, bring in big changes and what might happen to their stock options? How many directors sitting on the board only five years from retirement are still taking the sort of risks that got them there?

But if you can't change the people, change the people! Thus another way to energise an organisation is to redesign its recruitment policy. Sadly, organisations rarely resist our basic human urge to mix with those who are like us and so they end up hiring people who 'fit the bill' - mould? - bringing in more employees recruited precisely in their own image. It's tremendously friendly, comfortable and safe, of course, but nothing much changes. And you certainly make no impact on the company's habits of thinking and behaving.

In these ways, organisations thrive on conventional thinking and are deeply suspicious of the bizarre or unorthodox. Furthermore, organisations depend on people not being brave enough to challenge the status quo. They rely for their survival, their maintenance, on people who are happy, literally to continue what came before. ('Continue' is derived from Latin words which mean 'to hold together' whereas management guru Charles Handy's famous hope for 'discontinuous thinking in discontinuous change' would threaten to break things apart).

We need as a role model someone who already has lots of experience of thinking and acting in an unconventional way and, just as crucially, someone who is not afraid to speak up about it. Here is such a model: The Corporate Fool.

Fools have existed in all world cultures throughout history. Fools speak out against those who have power, question accepted wisdom, embody controversy and taboo, cast doubt in the face of certainty, bring chaos to order, point out the obvious when everybody else is apparently too scared to, throw a spanner in the proverbial works, turn the world upside down. It's the best job spec you'll ever read - unless you happen to be a Bad King.

But what would a Fool (as opposed to a fool - the distinction is important!) do all day in a modern organisation? Well, here are nine roles that we badly need in times of change and which we always seem to leave to somebody else (with the result that nobody ends up doing them). They are nine challenges to the intellectual and social traditions which obstruct change and which manifest the Shadow side of organisations. 

The Fool causes a company to face its Shadow in these ways:


This role the Fool plays merely by virtue of his presence: he is, by definition, a representative of otherness. Human beings are social animals, coming together to solve problems and to serve a common purpose when working in organisations. The Fool reinforces what is unique about our group - and also symbolises everything we are not but might be.

At the same time, the Alienator is the conduit for different information, contexts and trends from outside the organisation, even outside the industry. He challenges us to expand our thinking to welcome unconventional - and therefore potentially creative - inputs.

The Fool is the Vice President in charge of Being Other.


The King has the Fool's ear - he can confide in him and he can trust him, often with private thoughts that couldn't be expressed to anyone else. This is the 'armchair consultant' - the sounding board that doesn't judge, won't laugh and can't use it against him. Just as the Fool needs the King for support and protection, so the King needs the Fool for comfort and advice. What if there were such 'safe space' relationships existed throughout the organisation, where people could talk from the place of instinct and emotion without being judged?

The Fool is the Vice President in charge of Being the King's Pal.


The Fool is the challenger of the norms. He just doesn't agree. With anything. Whoever says whatever, the Fool will say the opposite, out of cussed obligation. Every idea is challenged, every decision questioned, every suggestion reconceived as alternatives. This is a discipline of challenge, which posits that if ideas can't prevail in a fair fight, they can't be very robust. Too often people withold challenge for fear of losing face; they therefore put individual wellbeing ahead of the whole. A Fool wouldn't care to do this, since he can't be promoted anyway...

The Fool is the Vice President in charge of Being Contrary.


When change is measured and gentle, we can use our left brain - logical, rational, linear thinking will be fine for processing information. We can leave our right brain to be nurtured doing the gardening or painting; in times of incremental change the right brain is for recreation. But when change is constant, enormous, punctuated, unpredictable, we need to find ways of thinking that mimic and reflect that trend. We need to use both our left and our right brain to solve the problems and create the solutions that will decide the survival and success of our business. The information age has brought with it the age of bewilderment, where things themselves are no longer as important as the possible connections between things – and making, creating and imagining new connections is the realm of creativity. Holistic, creative thinking is becoming a source of competitive edge. And, as we're not very good at it, we need some help.

The Fool is the Vice President in charge of Creative Problem Solving.


The only animal on Earth that has the ability to laugh is the human being - and the one place he struggles to exercise that ability is at work. That's why organisations can simultaneously be both perilously busy and as dull as dish water. The Jester-Fool encourages us to laugh because he knows it is good for our health and for the performance of our work. Humour humanises, and is thus an important requisite in building trust and healthy communication. He also knows, as did the social iconoclast Ivan Illich, that 'real revolutionaries are people who look with a deep sense of humour upon their institutions.' Besides, whoever said that change shouldn't be fun?

The Fool is the Vice President in charge of Making People Laugh.


Often the problem isn't that nobody knows. It's that nobody knows who knows. Where in the organisation is the knowledge? Who holds what understanding? The Fool is in a perfect place to find out. As the sniffer-about in all the corners of the company, he is developing a conceptual map of who knows what and where they are. He is then in the best place to draw together the necessary connections when we need it. This is a role he carries out when people ask him to, but also when he suspects they'd prefer him not to. Hoarding of information was always a power play in traditional organisations. In the information age, hoarding is probably a treasonable crime.

The Fool is the Vice President in charge of Knowing Who Knows.


Just as we have organised our way of doing business, so we have organised structures to govern our communication: we have codes of language and grammar and all sorts of cultural protocols. The key to understanding communication is to recognise that none of the symbols that we have adopted means anything in any objective sense. It is quite possible to imagine a world just like our own in which shaking hands means 'goodbye' or 'no' or even 'your mother is a fat warthog.' The signs and signals which make up our communication have an entirely arbitrary relationship with the things to which we are actually referring. 'Dog' and 'God' mean, respectively, 'four-legged creature' and 'supreme being' only because we have agreed that they will.

The inherent subjectivity of communication can be great fun if we want to play mind games. But if we want to re-connect our fragmented businesses in any meaningful way, we have to get beyond our easy misunderstandings in order to renegotiate past perceptions.

The Fool is the Vice President in charge of Mediating Meaning


Our organisations are funny and they are ridiculous and somebody needs to say so.

The Satirist-Fool looks around the workplace and sees all the inflated balloons of ego and indulgence and self-importance that fly around our heads and he deflates them. He clears the air and relieves the tension. He makes what is absurd seem so.

Why? Not just because pomposity is vulgar and silly in any self-respecting workplace, but because pomposity is an outward show of utter certainty - and in times of tremendous instability we cannot afford to be that sure about anything.

The Fool is the Vice President in charge of Pricking Pomposity


The Fool knows that not being truthful usually leads to complications (note that in that early Fool Myth The Emperor's New Clothes, the Emperor doesn't just end up looking stupid because he insists on being surrounded by liars; he gets seriously robbed by his tailors into the bargain). The Fool knows the truth is a very simple solution to most business problems. But we don't use it. And then the project collapses and everyone crawls out of the wreckage and says 'I knew that would happen'.

The Fool is the Vice President in charge of Telling the Truth.

The strong companies of the near future will be those who seek out and nurture Fool-like skills in all their people. No-one will have the job title, perhaps, but we can all learn the behaviours. The Fool is the ultimate 'change agent', and mastering change is the core competence of the age. We do not have time in this accelerating world for Naked Emperors and Sacred Cows of the past. Imagine: whole ranks of internal corporate Fools seeing things as they are and then challenging them creatively. It's an immense, mad, shocking challenge to organisational culture and only a Fool would say it. But he must.

Find the crazy people in your organisation and listen to them
-David Butler

Finally, it must be pointed out that the Fool plays a valuable iconoclast role, breaking down the old walls of traditional thinking. But he or she also leads us towards something powerful, beyond those walls. I'd like to end by sharing my vision of a healthy organisation:

A Healthy Organisation:

answers the questions 'who are we?' and 'how do we connect?'
is populated by living human beings
faces everything and avoids nothing
learns so that change is growth and not pain
sees the customer relationship as sacred

In all Tarot packs the Fool is pictured gazing off into the distance, towards the sun. Maybe this vision is something of what he sees there?

David Firth is a consultant, writer and conference speaker specialising in the psychology of human change, communication and in corporate cultures. He was listed last year as one of ‘Twenty People to Watch for the Future’ by Business Life magazine. He is also featured in a new book A Freethinker’s A-Z of the New World of Business as one of the ‘different people working in different organisations in different ways...’

David has been a Visiting Lecturer in Corporate Communications at Strathclyde Business School and a guest speaker on the Senior Executive Programme at Sundridge Park Management School. He is an Associate Member of The Wentworth Management Programme.

David’s vision is to help create the next generation of healthy organisations. As such, his company Treefrog Ltd works in many areas of organisational life - communication, ‘trust-building,’ innovation and learning communities. David works with companies and individuals open to change and innovation; his most recent projects include co-facilitating a leadership development forum for the Top 25 European directors at Ethicon and being key note presenter at Kingfisher’s Top 100 conference. Other clients include AMP (Australia & UK), Barclays Bank, BA, Gartner Group, IPC Magazines, Marks & Spencer, PWC and Unilever, though he is increasingly co-creating the future with internet start-ups and related companies.

David’s The Corporate Fool: saying the unsayable, doing the undoable (co-authored with Alan Leigh) was nominated for the MCA Book Prize. The Corporate Fool is a model for a new business professional: not in the court, but not quite out of it either, the Fool is in the best place both to tell the truth and to offer very unconventional - or, even, very obvious - solutions. David’s follow up The Transformation Fieldbook: how Fools create change from the inside out, will be published later this year.

David also wrote the best selling How to make work Fun! for Gower (nominated for the Financial Times Book of the Year competition); David is currently working on its sequel Business: The Movie, but it’s not much more than a great title at the moment, to be honest. His work in fun at work and Fooling has been featured extensively in the media. David also wrote Sacred Business, a book about spirit, heart and community in business, with Heather Campbell (a shamanic medicine woman).

He is the Consultant Editor of the SMART series of management books published by Capstone and wrote the launch edition, SMART Things to Know About CHANGE.

For eight years during the eighties, David ran an award-winning physical theatre company, The Lords of Misrule, and toured to Japan, America, Africa, Korea and Singapore. David began his business career with The LEK Partnership and Young & Rubicam, before co-founding his first consultancy, LFA, in 1990.

He lives in Yorkshire with his wife and two young sons.

David's books: "Sacred Business," "The Corporate Fool," and "Smart Things to Know About Change" are available through the publisher Capstone at a 25% discount on the list. Visit www.capstone.co.uk  to order.  To order "How to make work Fun," email David at david@foolweb.com


Learn more about the Corporate Fool at:



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