Time to call in the clowns

by Ralf Wetzel, Vlerick Business School

Managers going off hands

“Panama papers”. As whether it all would happen in 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 silent, a mass media outcry a bit too loud – and a public audience a bit too shocked. It could be taken simply as a flimsy movie quickly to be forgotten, wouldn’t we just have gone through similar cases like the Volkswagen emission scandal still trying to find its global limits, the LIBOR fraud unveiling how far such limits can be amongst competitors and a global subprime crisis with global economic consequences taking several years to recover. This is just covering the history of let’s say the last five years we are just experiencing the next moral catastrophe of the modern management. Strikingly, the lessons learned from previous scandals are almost zero, on both, on the public as much as on the corporate side. For an informed observer, both sides surprise by being surprised, since years. This is weird. Corporations don’t want to change behaviour as the public does not want to really react on such a corporate ignorance. Surprise and shock are most convenient for both.

Decline and dilemma of management

This happens during a situation, in which management as a social function has almost completely lost its former myth. The times are truly over in which the most popular courses at universities and business schools have been named “management” and students strongly identified themselves with managing. As much as the big corporation is in a structural reputational crisis, its management is too. One core reason might stem from a role problem. The old role pattern of the hero, who can overlook the problems of the past by his own mind and create a desirable future with his own hands (the masculine notion here is no coincidence) has shifted from the one steering a big corporation, being unavoidably involved in micropolitics and informal alliancing to two contrasting light figures still remaining innocent of ‘dark management’: the entrepreneur (doing all on his own) and the leader (focussing only on vision-building and motivating others). There is no role model for the one doing the dirty daily job anymore, especially not a role model incorporating the conditions of the current situations, including being trapped in insecurities, own weaknesses and insufficiencies. No wonder, that no one wants to become a manager anymore and no wonder that there is either a focus on the past (the old hero) or the future (the leader). There is neither a present for management, nor 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 Depression. And that the Indians say that clowns appear when the leaders get out of

hand!”

This quote by the Canadian clown trainer Richard Pochinko comes not by accident. In the midst of the refugee crisis displaying political helplessness and hopelessness, one figure celebrates a comeback – the clown. This figure now enters refugee camps in Lesbos as much as in Berlin and in Anderlecht, spreading joy, laughter and playfulness in the middle of trauma, despair and boredom. It is the clown who is one of the last reliable figures trusted to contain 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, the clown shows it. There is no veil nor 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 the connection to the audience, in the here and now. If there is no one watching, the clown just doesn’t exist and disappears. If the clown is unable to connect emotionally to this audience, his performance will be witnessed as a flaw and a fake, the most horrible thing to happen. And finally, much of the charisma of the clown is in his unavoidable confrontation to failure. Whatever he does is always at risk and it is the innocent and unveiled struggle that turns him adorable for the audience. The innocence, emotional connection with the audience, the presence the clown is in and the existential struggle is 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. And I hope that such a role model won’t be shaped by the industry of management fashion, residing in an questionable alliance of consulting, business schooling and managing. An exploration needs to take place far away from the beaten tracks of management science and practice. Fortunately enough, there are already sensitive discussions going on, including the instructions from arts and European and Far Eastern 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 board that journey. By becoming naïve and innocent observers, by desperately searching for a true connection to an audience and by making themselves vulnerable there might be a chance. It’s a hard jump. But not jumping is somehow not an option anymore, if we don’t want to pretend being surprised about the next shabby movie.

Ralf Wetzel began his career as an electrician. He joined Vlerick Business School as a Professor of Organization and Management after extensive work experience in management and organization research and after being a head of a joint research and consulting group. His career path led him from Germany to the UK, via Switzerland to Belgium. He applies art-based research like improvisation principles and theatre play in his work, especially for inquiring into topics like organization theory & behaviour, change management, consulting, leadership, organization & society. Aside of his academic writing, he loves to turn research results into art-based forms like fiction, accessible for non-academic readers. Twitter: @RalfWetzel


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