Not having broadcast TV, my husband and I just discovered The Tudors.
Beyond the fun of religion, sex, and beheadings; at its heart, the series is a fascinating depiction of how a young Henry VIII transforms into an infamous tyrant, to whom no one who dares speak the truth or else find themselves on the chopping block–quite literally.
There is only one exception, Henry’s Fool, Will Sommers, who speaks the truth that no one else dares, with equal parts searing wit and jaw-dropping directness. He could do this because absolute monarchs grated relative immunity only to their court jesters. Thinking about my own role as an executive coach, I realized that I am indeed a Fool.
My clients are really great leaders and very powerful people in their organizations. Despite corporate governance prohibiting capital punishment, my clients are among the many executives who are not provided with meaningful feedback that they trust by their peers, direct reports or even their bosses. As a result, executive development becomes increasingly challenging with each promotion. After administering hundreds of interviews for 360 reviews, I know far too well that I can only elicit candid feedback by guaranteeing to protect the identity of the respondents.
Would most executives exact revenge for a cutting performance review by a peer or direct report? Maybe. Is the fear of upsetting someone up the hierarchy generally justified? Probably.
That’s why it’s important to create the space for Fools. We’re all riddled with blind spots. If the emperor doesn’t make certain that there’s someone around who will tell him he’s not wearing clothes, then it’s his own fault for running around naked.
Last month I had the pleasure of spending a couple of days in a group with Marshall Goldsmith, Fast Company columnist and executive coach extraordinaire. To me, he is the living embodiment of the modern Fool. Now I may be overstepping my bounds by dubbing a man who has a business school named after him a Fool. However, watching him over the course of a few hours, he repeatedly delivered admonitions with such easy humor and ringing clarity that his message got through even the thickest armor. It was mastery of the tools wielded to speak truth to power for centuries and a perfect illustration of why the Joint Chiefs of Staff listen to him.
The global marketplace is incredibly competitive. The top of the corporate pyramid gets pretty narrow. Generations of authoritative monarchs were enlightened enough to understand the value of Fools, how about you? Take a good look at the people you surround yourself with. Who do you trust to give you the kind of feedback that can shake you to your core and set you on the right track? Who has actually done this for you in the last three months? If you cannot name at least two people, or don’t see the point, then I’m afraid you may be playing yourself as the fool.