Learning from a fool


You won’t have guessed this if you have trawled through any of these articles in my 108 years of contributing to this esteemed organ but I studied English at University (in the days when everything was black and white). It was great and I still love books, literature and colouring books.

When people ask, as they often do, on our training courses what books they should read to further their learning and development, especially about business and dealing with people, I will quote the obvious and the less obvious business books (How To Win Friends and Influence People plus Manwatching are just 2, if you want any more, be in touch) but I will also guide them towards literature. Yes, those books that aren’t in the business bit of a bookstore.

Novels, of course, as they are normally written from the perspective of trying to explain and/or understand human behaviour, are one obvious source of knowledge but I do also guide people towards Shakespeare who had a grasp on human behaviour that has seldom been matched by the other distinguished writers that have followed him. Yes, he may have had some collaborators, for those of you who are interested, but who doesn’t?

The use of humour to lighten harsh truths also has a place in feedback.

I could quote lots of parallels for business but, as I only have 400 words or so left, let’s just look at The Fool, no, not the writer of this tosh but the character of The Fool in King Lear. (See the play: three hours that, for me, normally zips by.)

The Fool plays, in effect, the role of a coach/mentor and it’s not a bad case study to use in helping develop people.

Here’s your scenario: your leader has gone into a narcissistic fog and has made a great error of choice when it comes to selection of new leaders in the business, oops, country. Your role is to get him to realise his mistake and put it right whilst giving him emotional support in a time of great difficulty for an ageing man who is obviously losing his mind. (No, this is not the USA. Honest.)

What would you do? Well, the “action plan” of many in the play is to nod, agree and toady up to the now ex-king but, in this chaotic world, only one person sees through the fog and gives a clear picture of reality. This is The Fool; as Shakespeare once said “Jesters do oft prove prophets”.

The Fool is, well, supposedly what his name suggests but he is just the opposite of the King’s deluded yet loyal, supporters and is the one who, in a world falling apart around him, actually doesn’t creep or suck up to the errant King but tells him the truth or, at least, a version of the truth.

It’s a great feedback technique that coaches and mentors can learn from. The use of humour to lighten harsh truths also has a place.

Surprisingly, there is lots of evidence based feedback from him:

“Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.”

This, in case you are not familiar with the play (and you should be), refers to the stupidity of the original decision by King Lear and is quite an insult coming from anybody else but a coach/mentor should be able to tell the truth. And the insulting feedback goes on (given that Lear doesn’t listen to the wise words of many, it’s finding a way of getting your message across that The Fool uses):

“If thou wert my fool, nuncle, I’d have thee beaten for being old before thy time.”

The Fool’s approach eventually works (well, by the end of the first half of the play, the King sees his error and wants to put things right, so, job done, at the end of the first half, off toddles The Fool, his work done, with the words:

“And I’ll go to bed at noon.”

And this is also a key point. When your coaching is done, your coaching is done.

He’s set his target (get the King to see the error of his ways), he’s done what he needs to do and the job done he lets his mentoree/coachee get on with it, which is the role of the coach/mentor.

Okay, so it ends in tragedy but if it ended in Lear coming up with a management buy-out and Goneril and Regan setting up a subsidiary in Denmark (where there is something rotten) and Cordelia becoming MD, well, it may not have the desired dramatic impact of the original. Though I may pitch this to Channel4…

Literature gives us lots of opportunities to show examples which, whilst they make be fictional, paint accurate pictures to learn from. Why not think of suing them to help develop your people in a different, but quite rewarding, way?

Just a thought from a fool.


About Author

Avatar photo

Training Design & Delivery of topics such as Customer Service, Note Taking, Business Writing, Presentation Skills, All Management/Team Leader areas, Sales, Sales Management, all tailored and run in-house for your personal requirements. Also, coaching and mentoring.

Leave A Reply