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‘The Corporate Fool’ by David Firth and Alan Leigh


The Corporate Fool
Author: David Firth with Alan Leigh
Publisher: Capstone
Date: 1998
ISBN: 1 900961 51 2
Price: GBP 14.99

I starting reading this book shortly after reviewing another Capstone book, Smart Things to Know about Strategy by Richard Koch – and expected that this would be just as enjoyable. The title of The Corporate Fool also had me smiling in anticipation. However, what I found was a very serious book, which was somewhat heavy going, and rather disappointing.

Instead of the fun quotes I had expected, I got sensible accounts of the different types of fools that it’s possible to be. Rather than jokes, there were quotations from people like Edgar H Schein, Einstein and Napoleon. And in place of light-hearted writing, there were ‘Glimpses of Fooling’ that sounded very much like the work of facilitators and consultants.

The first section of the book briefly describes the history of fooling and offers us two options - the Tarot Fool, using the unconscious in the form of intuition, or the Jung Fool, who brings the shadow side of the organisation into view.

Section 2 is subtitled ‘Fragments from a manifesto for change’. We learn that the Fool sets out to deal with two enemies – the apparatchiks, who want to keep what they have gained from the current system, and the feudalists, who can conceive of no other way for things to be. A short review of the difficulties of bringing about organisational change then leads us into descriptions of the nine roles of the corporate fool: ‘alienator, representative of otherness; confidante, of the king; contrarian, challenger of the norms; midwife, generator of creativity and problem-solving; jester, entertainer and 'umorist', mapper of knowledge; mediator of meaning; satirist, deflator, pricker of pomposity; truthseeker, teller of the truth; and mythologist, maker and breaker of myths.’ (page 44). Yes, I know that’s 10 – they list all 10 at this point although they subsequently introduce the 10th role later in the book where they also refer to it as the Vice President for Myth, whose job it is to maintain a climate where the 9 roles can flourish.

This section also includes a User’s Manual for a King who wants to employ a Fool, plus a Fool’s Handbook to tell you how to be one. It also tells you how to design a foolish building, so we can all be foolish at certain times of the day (but don’t get too excited – this involves changing coffee points to meeting places, corridors to pathways, and similar altered perspectives).

There are interviews with the former Corporate Jester from British Airways (who says he had a lot of fun but seems to have been sacked for taking the p….) and with someone at the US Department of Labor who has called himself the Troublemaker (and seems to have stayed only because he managed to transfer to an office where risktaking is part of the culture).

Section 3 is subtitled ‘A personal quest for Foolishness’ It lists questions to ask yourself for each of the roles and has a block of text devoted to lessons for enhancing personal creativity. It is followed by two appendices – the first is a sort of pot-pourri of ideas for handling change and the second is a list of brainstormed descriptions of the nine roles of the fool.

Finally, in Appendix 3 they mention a web page where you will find discussion groups and information about The Fool School. Having visited it, the web page might be a good place for you to start if you want to check out whether this book would be useful to you. Reviews are always a personal opinion, so the fact that I found it uninspiring doesn’t mean that you would have the same reaction. If you want to understand the dynamics of fooling and how it can operate within an organisation, there is certainly plenty to interest you in this book.

Reviewed by Julie Hay, Chief Executive of training consultancy A.D. International

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