Centuries ago, rulers in ancient Rome and China, in the Middle East and Renaissance Europe, as well as in czarist Russia, all had court jesters, the best-known of whom became famous for their sharp tongues and quick wit. But the role was for more than simply entertaining or amusing.

The typical jester was an outsider, often shunned by society, and his position of not being taken seriously gave him the opportunity to fine-tune his insight into human nature - especially that of leaders. Jesters were called the "original truth tellers" and were expected to deliver unpleasant news to the king - news that no one else would dare talk about - and were even tasked with pointing out the king's personal shortcomings.

Just imagine how valuable a jester could be in business today. This person could show others the hard truth in a straightforward way without fear of punishment (and get paid to do so). The reason court jesters were so effective is because truth-telling can mean removing the blinders that leaders so often wear. Those closest to the truth often can't hear or see what is right in front of them.

One way for leaders to be truth-tellers is to recognize that we have fears that get in the way of establishing and nurturing truth-telling cultures and practices. Exposing these fears can be as helpful to a leader as it is to employees.

5 Core Reasons That Leaders Don't Create a Truth-Telling Environment

  1. Leaders don't want people revolting in the kingdom and may feel that criticism, no matter how minor, could take on a life of its own.  What leaders think: "Is this an indictment of my leadership?"
  2. Leaders find it hard to see how a "bitch session" full of critique, criticism, and dissatisfaction can turn into a powerful force for positive change.  What leaders think: "How can complaining move us forward? Isn't this a colossal waste of time?"
  3. Leaders don't want to invite people to play the "monkey game."  What leaders think: "If I open the door to truth-telling, won't everyone just dump their 'monkeys' on my desk?"
  4. Leaders don't want to admit they don't have all the answers - even more so than employees who feel this way.  What leaders think: "Will people stop believing I'm a quality leader if I admit I don't know everything?" 
  5. Leaders don't know how to have candid, truthful conversations - or how to make them match their picture of what leaders do.  What leaders think: "How do I allow complaining and still be a strong leader, especially when the complaining usually includes finger-pointing?"

Is Everyone Telling the Truth?

Few things are more important to improving leaders' readiness to hear the truth than making their own fears part of their considerations for crafting an environment in which everyone is open to telling and hearing the truth. Leaders often ooze confidence - it's an important attribute of good ones - but that confidence can be a negative. Psychologist Tasha Eurich calls this the "CEO disease." Frank Kalman, Managing Editor at Talent Economy, explains: "The higher someone is on the corporate ladder, the harder it is to be self-aware, including the harder it is for a leader to want to admit their weaknesses and vulnerabilities."

If you can't hire a modern-day court jester, the simplest way to encourage and accept the truth as a leader is to first acknowledge the fears that contribute to your CEO disease and then make sure your picture of what exceptional leaders do includes a willingness to listen to and admit your weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

How is your organization doing on the truth-telling and truth-hearing front?