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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Davies

Jester's Privilege

In the household of nobility and monarchy, dating back as far as the 14th century, as well as appearing (under different titles) in other cultures such as the Chinese and the Aztecs as early as the 7th Century jesters, or their equivalents, were employed by rulers and monarchs to entertain them and their guests. Jesters would sing and dance, juggle and tell stories and jokes and sometimes perform acrobatics and magic tricks!

As well as being entertainers, however, Jesters also served another purpose - a unique ability to speak truth to power! You see, jesters were afforded something called Jester's Privilege, meaning that they had the right to talk and mock freely, without fear of punishment. This meant that they could poke fun at those in the seats of power, without risking being being strung up, as might happen to ordinary folk doing the same thing. This gave them the power to influence important decisions, by drawing attention to the absurdity of decisions, approaches, decrees and actions of leaders.


For example, one Chinese Emperor, having been told by a magistrate to stop trampling the crops of his common folk while on hunting trips, had that magistrate brought before him, to deliver a punishment. His jester, seeing the absurdity of the situation, told the Emperor that he was right to deliver this punishment, and should trample the crops of all of his people, thus removing their ability to sell the crops and pay their taxes, all so that the Emperor could freely roam to hunt!


We've all heard and probably shared the proverb that many a true word is spoken in jest and it's as relevant in our work lives as it is at home. Workplaces are often the sites of ridiculousness. People using nonsensical language with little meaning, rather than giving straight answers. Endless loops of restructures which cause departments and teams to flip flop back and forward in structure and purpose at huge cost. Values and visions being plastered on walls and lanyards, while the behaviours and direction of the company fly in their faces. Projects running vastly over budget and deadline but still being badged as successes. Other projects, which should absolutely be canned, somehow continuing along, consuming energy and resources, purely because their owners don't want to be seen to have been responsible for a 'failure'. These are just some of the many, many things that happen every day in businesses and which go recognised but unacknowledged.


Wouldn't it be nice to have a jester in meetings, calling out the bullshit, shining a light on the absurdity and the nonsense and holding leaders accountable for their decisions and their behaviour? A jester whose words, by definition, could not cause offence. Their presence would empower people to speak up more, to challenge more, to bring more of themselves to work and to drive better outcomes.


The closest I've ever seen to a jester in a work environment was when I worked at the Royal Bank of Scotland (now NatWest) and the organisation brought in Facebook @ Work (which was exactly what it sounds like). When this system arrived, it changed the dynamics of the bank, because it gave people the ability to build their profile across the organisation in ways that they'd never been able to before. They could find like-minded people more easily, share their thoughts and experiences and even build a bit of profile for themselves through their skills and expertise. One person who took full advantage of this, was a gentleman who worked in a finance role but who happened, in his spare time, to be a talented illustrator. He started producing small cartoon strips, typically no more than a few boxes, which sometimes celebrated, but often lampooned things which were happening at the bank. They were very light-hearted, never personally embarrassed or shamed any individual, but they were incredibly sharp and insightful, and drew attention to things which had either gone unnoticed or unspoken about, across the bank.

Over a year or so, he became extremely popular for these cartoon (which were Dilbert-esque in writing style, although not illustrative approach) and I regularly heard people talk about them in meetings or around the office, using them as a catalyst for conversations about topics which they might otherwise not have raised. On one occasion, I remember being asked to lead the rollout of a new training initiative in one division of the bank. It was an odd piece of work and one which I had some level of uneasiness with, but I couldn't really put my finger on why, so I plowed along regardless. When word of the project spread, it wasn't long before it became the topic of one of the cartoons and the little characters were lightly mocking the project I was responsible for! I will confess, my instant reaction was anger, but that subsided quickly and I found myself giggling at the cartoon, because the observations it made were so on the nose, that it was impossible not to! In writing and sharing it, he made me think differently about what I was doing and how, and I approached my work differently, with a greater degree of challenge to my superiors and with a higher level of authenticity, and I have him to thank for that.


We never met in real life, but I long admired his work from afar. He left the bank before me and I was delighted to see him hanging up his finance boots and building a career around his cartoons. I regularly see his content online, where he's doing very well for himself and I have friends who have bought and been gifted pictures and clothing adorned with his work. I consider myself lucky to have seen first hand how he used his gift to challenge assumptions and shine light into the organisation's shadows .


Being a jester, in many organisations as they stand, could be career-limiting. I recognise that openly mocking your bosses and their decision making is probably not a recipe for climbing the organisational ladder! But if you're a leader, it is well worth you spending some time thinking about how you open up and welcome the challenge and dissent that jesters represent. It'll help you build a much more collaborative, engaged and impactful team!

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