Foolosophy in the boardroom

Archetype lenses

In systems thinking, we often use mental models, of which the archetype is one variety, to provide us with a lens that helps to simplify the ‘story’ of what’s happening in our work and social environment.

Archetypes come in many shapes and sizes. At the macro level, system archetypes decompose the elements and forces at work within our systems. This provides a framework for making sense of what works, and what requires an intervention. At the micro-level, we use archetypes to talk about patterns of individual or group behaviour that play a key role in shaping our culture.

In mentoring, our shared reflective practice holds up a mirror for use by the mentee in their efforts to improve their self-awareness and effectiveness. Archetypes can be useful reference points for this reflection on individual experience and/or organisational situations.

Archetype narratives

Many writers have benefitted from understanding how to link characters, plot, and narrative structure. Archetypes are used to create these links and to trigger a connection between the audience and the story.

We are all authors of our own lives of course, and governing boards can also be considered authors of their organisation’s future when they determine their purpose, vision, mission, and strategy.

The hero archetype and the hero’s journey narrative are often used to frame the plot of a movie or novel. (Doubtless, you will have seen the commentary showing fundamental similarities between the Star Wars and Harry Potter storylines i.e. orphaned children discover they have magical powers and fight evil with their saber wands).

The fool archetype has also been used extensively in literature and film, with Don Quixote being one of the better-known versions.

As with the literary use of archetypes in a story arc, often our own ‘journey’ is as important as our destination. When we pause to reflect on our experience, or on how far we have come, we distill life lessons that inform our future decisions and actions, and reshape our character.

Neil Gaiman’s writing masterclass notes that, unlike stereotypes, stock characters, and cliches, “an archetype … does not imply predictability or intellectual laziness. Most of the time, it suggests that a character or situation will speak to a universal truth. Archetypes will by definition be familiar, but they aren’t so predictable that we already know what will happen in their story”.

Foolosophy insights

Foolosophy is a humorous term first used in the late 16th century to refer to sham or spurious philosophy, or pseudo-philosophy. It is used here to describe a set of anti-hero archetypes that can be used to characterise unproductive and/or hurtful behaviours.

An early lesson in my first career as a young teacher was to always label a student’s behaviour rather than the person. This requires acknowledging their capacity to choose different behaviours, rather than seeing them as a cardboard cutout who would forever wear their personality ‘tattoo’ or label on their forehead. Each child is a story in the process of being written. So too are we adults, as we live and work with others in various settings (scenes).

As you reflect on the mainly negative (shadow) archetypes described below, beware of permanently attaching any of these labels to a person or group. Label the behaviour by all means, but recognise that we are all works in progress. We all have the capacity to gain insights and outgrow patterns of behaviour that are unproductive or damaging.

Like Aristotle’s Virtue Continuum, Jungian archetypes offer light and shadow ‘extremes’ for the style of behaviours associated with the 12 dimensions of mastery, safety, freedom, knowledge, liberation, power, pleasure, intimacy, belonging, service, innovation, and control. Between these light and shadow extremes for each dimension lies an infinite range of behaviours and dispositions which may be demonstrated as the person reacts ‘automatically’, or chooses their response, to their experience and circumstances.

The Foolosophy archetypes are therefore grossly oversimplified characterisations of certain types of shadow behaviour, and should not be used to label any person or group.

The Wise Fool – speaking truth

Etymonline tells us that the English notion of the fool sage, whose sayings are ironically wise is attested from c. 1300.

In the Renaissance era, it was the job of the Wise Fool to question convention and authority and to break with traditional thinking. Kings and Queens generally would not allow courtiers and others to express opposing views, however, the jester was often given license to say whatever they wished, whether naively or knowingly. The jester could also offer insights into court gossip and the machinations of those seeking royal favours. This has some similarities to a modern Government Minister wanting ‘contestable advice’ from NGOs, rather than allowing themselves to become captive to departmental and bureaucratic thinking.

Harking back to my post on the history of thinking hats, a variant of the fool’s cap is the court jester’s cap, which looks like something of a parody of a royal crown.

The Philosophical ‘fool’

The ship of fools is an allegory, originating from Book VI of Plato’s Republic, about a ship with a dysfunctional crew. The allegory is intended to represent the problems of governance prevailing in a political or organisational system that is not based on expert knowledge.

Despite its age, this allegory still offers highly relevant insights for current directors charged (jointly and severally) with ‘steering their organisational ship’.

The ship of fools / trans. Alexander Barclay
Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Expressing an early version of the wise fool archetype, the Socratic Paradox, “I know that I know nothing,” has tended to characterise Socrates as the oxymoron of “the ignorant knower”. In Plato’s Apology, this self-admission of ignorance ultimately leads the Oracle at Delphi to claim there is no one with greater wisdom than Socrates.

Reflecting this notion of the wise fool, whenever Shakespeare includes a fool or jester in his plays, they tend to utter the most profound lines. A popular Shakespearean quote (which also happens to have some similar paradoxical qualities to a zen Buddhist koan) sums this up well:

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool”.

Shakespeare, As you like it

The wise fool today

The Wise Fool is the brave soul and the adventuresome spirit who dares to think differently. This person is an irreverent visionary who experiences life on their own terms.

The ‘Wise Fool’ approach today implies letting go of conventional assumptions about how things should be done, and finding innovative and alternative approaches to doing things better. The Agile and Antifragile movements both echo this perspective.

6 Fool Archetypes

The header image above suggests 6 fool archetypes, with the ‘Wise Fool’ being an exception to the rule that fool archetypes are negative – or at least, not emotionally intelligent. Naive, stubborn, selfish, cynical, or mean behaviour damages deliberation and organisational effectiveness. These behaviors could also qualify as symptoms of a toxic culture.

The ‘Wise Fool’ director, on the other hand, adds value for their organisation by questioning convention and being open to innovation. The director who dares to ask a ‘silly’ question often discovers that others wanted to pose the same query but were not brave enough to ask. Regrettably, they had been persuaded to operate in accordance with the maxim, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt” (attributed to Mark Twain).

Asking the ‘what if?’ questions that examine potential risks of the proposed action, or of failing to act, should be recognised as a valuable part of the deliberation on any strategic initiative. Brainstorming solutions to intractable problems is another example of a process that deliberately seeks to break out of conventional boundaries.

Avoiding foolishness

Apart from behaving in a frivolous manner during a board or committee meeting, other kinds of foolishness may also be demonstrated. For example, asking a question to which the answer was provided in board papers simply wastes everyone’s time.

With 188 kinds of distorted (foolish) thinking recorded in the latest version of the Cognitive Bias Codex, reducing the set of ‘fool’ archetypes to just 6 is clear evidence of the oversimplification used here, as mentioned above.

Deliberative behaviour

Various guidelines for successful deliberation are available for reference online. If your board has not included something along these lines in your Charter or Manual, this may be worth considering. Certainly, guidance of this kind should be highlighted during induction processes, and where appropriate, referred to by the chair and others during board and committee meetings.

The version offered by the Communication Department at the University of Pittsburgh is a good example of such guidelines, covering recommended listening, speaking, arguing, and interacting dispositions and behaviours.

Adhering to guidelines such as these would be a useful antidote to some of the shadow behaviours described by the foolosophy archetypes.

See also:

Archetypal Character Arcs, Pt. 8: Introduction to the 12 Shadow Archetypes

Leave a Reply