Since this publication may be read by many CEOs – “Chief Energizing Officers”–, I’ve chosen the above title for the article. The truth is: we all suffer from CEO disease and need motley fools. Feedback from motley fools is the breakfast of champions. I will explain.

The CEO of a European company says: “I so often feel I’m not getting the truth. I can never put my finger on it, because no one is actually lying to me. But I can sense that people are hiding information, or camouflaging key facts so I won’t notice. They aren’t lying, but neither are they telling me everything I need to know. I’m always second guessing.”

This is an example of CEO Disease: information gaps around a leader when people withhold important (and often unpleasant) information. What causes the disease? Sometimes people anticipate the leader’s discomfort or anger and believe that in delivering bad news, they could get symbolically executed for being the messenger. Others may be prisoners of Group Think. Still others may just want to be viewed as positive, and so suppress negative feedback. It’s a natural instinct to please the boss and it is generally uncomfortable to give honest feedback to anyone, for fear of hurting feelings or upsetting them.

The organizational bottom line (however translated) can be negatively impacted when the Chief has only partial information as to what’s really going on in the organizational tribe. The Chief may become so insulated as to lose ability to read the smoke signals – and where there’s smoke, there could be fire!

Goleman, Boyatzis & McKee in their book on emotional intelligence entitled, Primal Leadership point out: “…top executives typically get the least reliable information about how they are doing. For instance, an analysis of 177 separate studies that assessed more than 28,000 managers found that feedback on performance became less consistent the higher the manager’s position…. The problem is compounded for leaders who are women or belong to a minority.”

Each culture has its own version(s) of the Fool, yet the role is similar across time and group – to provide candid, caring, honest, unvarnished feedback and fresh perspective. In Shakespeare’s plays and medieval government , Fools were the only people who could get away with telling the truth to the King or Queen and survive – without getting their heads lopped off. The Motley Fool does that in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Interestingly, the beginnings of Shakespeare’s great comedies and tragedies are similar in the severity of their opening conflicts, but their endings are light years apart. The comedies are transformed by the light of truth told by fools and the tragedies are not.

William Willeford, in his classic study, The Fool and His Sceptre, explores the history of professional fools in the courts of royalty. The professional fool is an “inside outsider,” relatively detached and free in the employ of the king, who is valuable because he brings an outsider’s perspective to ruling without compromising his loyalty to his employer. Not unlike a prophet, he calls us to a clearer perspective on things. Gary Eberle, Chairman of the English department at Aquinas College, highlights this critical role: “The fool, to be effective, must remain independent, transcendent, and unattached. His archetypal role is to stand on the border, whispering in our ears that we are mere mortals, flawed creatures. If we stifle our inner fool, we pave the way for tragedy. If we listen, however, we may learn to achieve a happy ending on this stage of fools.”

The archetype of the Fool is hardwired into the human psyche and historically has been variously symbolized as long as humans have used symbols to express concepts.

Frederick Franck – author of over 20 books, including The Zen of Seeing and What Does It Mean to be Human? says: “Each culture has its Great Fool. The most popular in the culture from which I sprang was Tyl Ulenspiegel. I discovered that Tyl’s nickname, Ulenspiegel, rested on a play of words: “Spiegel” means “mirror” and “Ulen” refers to “all you people”, making it “I am all you people’s mirror.” …the philologists and philosophers of Flanders say that Tyl’s own motto, “Ik ben ulen spiegel” is just vulgar Flemish for “Ik ben u lieden Spiegel,” which means, “I am your true mirror.”… And why should it not be both?”

The mirroring function reminds me of a poem by Derek Walcott:

The time will come
When, with elation,
You will greet yourself arriving
At your own door, in your own mirror,
And each will smile at the other’s welcome,
And say, Sit here, Eat.

And the intriguing lines from The Little Prince:

“Goodbye,” said the fox. “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.” -Antoine De Saint-Exupery-

So here’s to growing eyes in our hearts and to the mirroring of fools! We all need motley fools. After all, who but a fool would be foolish enough to tell the truth? Excuse my flip foolisms, but I hope you fool surround and are creatively challenged by this fool’s lesson.

-- Ronald Bell is a certified employee assistance professional, psychotherapist, corporate trainer, management consultant, and executive/life/work coach.

Author's Bio: 

Ronald Bell, Corporate Trainer, Counselor & Life Coach

CEO: Collaborative for Positive Integral Change

Ronald Bell is an ordained Presbyterian minister, a certified Employee Assistance Professional, psychotherapist, and management consultant providing corporate/leadership training, organization & personal effectiveness services, and executive/life/work coaching.
Bell’s educational background includes a bachelor’s degree in sociology/psychology, a master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a master’s degree in psychology and counseling from San Francisco Theological Seminary.  He also attended the Rutgers Graduate School of Social Work studying organizational behavior.  Bell’s clinical training includes San Francisco General Hospital, New Jersey Neuro-Psychiatric Institute, Chicago’s Augustana Hospital, and the Graduate Institute of Religion and Health in New York City. For ten years he was on the adjunct faculty for New Jersey’s Human Resource Development Institute (HRDI)  - NJ’s premier training/consulting organization. Included among Bell’s 25 + plus training workshop topics are: Resolving Interpersonal Conflicts; Team Building; Emotional Intelligence; Communication & Dialogue; Decision-Making; Valuing Diversity; Stress Management; Managing Change & Transition; and the Human Spirit in Life & Work.

Bell has served as the executive director of three non-profit human service and community development organizations, as well as president and member of dozens of civic boards and committees, and as the moderator of two radio talk shows on community issues and concerns.  His awards for community service include the Hannah G. Solomon Award from the National Council of Jewish Women, the Law Day U.S.A. Liberty Bell Award from the Somerset County (N.J.) Bar Association, and the distinguished Service Award as one of the state’s ‘Top Five Men’ from the New Jersey Jaycees.