Time to call in the clowns

By Ralf Wetzel, professor of Organisational Behaviour at Vlerick Business School

“Panama papers”. A story as from a bad American movie: A law company with a name a bit too clandestine, international politicians feeling a bit too safe, a business network operating a bit too covertly, a mass media outcry  a bit too loud – and a public audience a bit too shocked. It could have been taken simply as a flimsy premise for a movie quickly to be forgotten, had we not just gone through similar cases, like the Volkswagen emissions scandal still happily running its course, the LIBOR fraud revealing how far the boundaries can be pushed even amongst competitors, and the global subprime crisis with global economic consequences that are taking several years to recover. This is just covering the history of, let’s say, the last five years. We are experiencing the next moral catastrophe of modern management. Strikingly, the lessons learned from previous scandals are almost zero, on both the public and the corporate side. For an informed observer, both sides are surprising in their quality of being surprised, year in, year out. This is weird. Corporations don’t want to change their behaviour, and the public does not really want to react to such corporate ignorance. Surprise and shock are the most convenient options for both.

The decline and dilemma of management

This all happens in a time in which management as a social function has almost completely lost its former mythical trappings. The times are truly over in which the most popular courses at universities and business schools were named some variation on “management”, and students strongly identified with the prospects of managing. As much as the idea of the big corporation is suffering a structural reputational crisis, management is, too. One core reason might stem from the role problem that modern management faces. The old role pattern of the hero, who can survey the problems of the past by force of his own mind alone and create a desirable future with his own hands (the masculine subtext here is no coincidence), has shifted from a single archetypal figure, steering a big corporation and being inextricably involved in micro-politics and informal alliancing, into the two contrasting figures, still untouched by the creeping shadows of ‘dark management’: the entrepreneur (doing all on his own) and the leader (focussing only on building visions and motivating others). There is no role model for the manager doing the down-and-dirty daily work anymore, especially not a role model that could accommodate the conditions of current life, with its being trapped in insecurities and its weaknesses and insufficiencies. No wonder then that no one wants to become a manager anymore, and no wonder that there is either a harking back to the past (the old hero) or a fixation with the future (the leader). There is neither a present for management, nor is there a presence. Management is absent in the present, and it has lost its innocence.

The instruction of a forgotten stranger

"Clowns are born when society has a need for them. Remember that Chaplin and Keaton were most popular during the Depression. And that the Indians say that clowns appear when the leaders get out of hand!" This quote by the Canadian clown trainer Richards Pochinko does not come by accident. In the midst of the refugee crisis revealing political helplessness and hopelessness, one figure is celebrating a comeback – the clown. This figure can now be found in refugee camps in Lesbos as much as in Berlin or Anderlecht, spreading joy, laughter, and playfulness in the midst of trauma, despair, and boredom. It is the clown who is one of the last reliable figures trusted to promise hope, empathy, and innocence, after traffickers, border guards, and bureaucrats have done their job. After an inexorable decline of the circus as one of his natural habitats, the clown is back, probably stronger than ever. And the reasons for that are very simple. First of all, the clown is innocent, he has no interest. Whatever emotion he is driven by, he shows it. There is no mask, no veil, no hiding. The clown is naked in his emotionality. Second, the clown only exists in the here and now. There is no past he is bound to, and there is no future he longs for. He exists only in the here and now. Third, the magic he is born by is his connection to the audience. If there is no one watching him, he simply doesn’t exist, and he will disappear. And if he is unable to connect emotionally to this audience, his performance will be seen as flawed and fake, the most horrible judgment for him. And finally, much of the charisma of the clown is in his unavoidable confrontation with failure. Whatever he does, he is always at risk, and it is the innocent and unveiled struggle that makes him adorable for the audience. The innocent, emotional connection with the audience, the presence he is in, and his existential struggle are the essence of what that figure still brings to the world. And he is back at an essential moment.

The desire for something else

There is no role model yet for a management being present, vulnerable, connected, and innocent in this way. And I hope it won’t become a role model shaped by the industry of management fashions, residing in the arguably questionable alliance between consulting, business schooling, and managing. There needs to be an exploration far away from the beaten tracks of management science and practice. Fortunately enough, there are already meaningful discussions happening that accept instructions from the arts and European philosophy. The managerial crisis won’t be solved from within management science and practice. The clown might be a role model for both academics and practitioners to get on board for that journey. By becoming naïve and innocent observers, by desperately searching for a true connection to an audience, and by making themselves vulnerable. It’s a tough jump. But not jumping is somehow not an option anymore, if we don’t want to pretend we are surprised by the next shabby movie.

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