The Stick

Michael Metzger

Last week I urged organizational leaders to complete their roundtables. I was dangling a carrot. There is another way to motivate – the stick. Here’s a stick, what an incomplete roundtable looks like. That’s what happened to King Arthur’s Round table.

In the Arthurian legend, King Arthur sets out to convince the people to transition away from war as a method to settle all scores. He wanted to stop anarchy, having inherited a kingdom steeped in brutality and rife that included infighting among the nobles. The king formed the Knights of the Round Table to change the culture of England. It started well but soon became an incomplete table. That’s why Arthur’s plan ultimately failed.

Arthur didn’t recognize this. He did sense something was amiss as he observed his knight’s recidivism. Most kept returning to old habits, including infighting. They weren’t changing for the better. To remedy this, Arthur added a Quest – the search for the Holy Grail. It too failed, as T. H. White writes in The Once and Future King:

So he had sought for a new channel, had sent them out on God’s business, searching for the Holy Grail. That too had been a failure, because those who had achieved the Quest had become perfect and been lost to the world, while those who had failed in it had soon returned no better.

“Nothing fails like success” wrote the cultural historian Gerald Nachman. The knights who failed came back unchanged. Failure taught them nothing. Worse were the knights who succeeded by achieving the Quest. They acted self-righteous and were “lost to the world.” The Book of Ecclesiastes echoes this: “Do not be excessively righteous and do be overly wise. Why should you ruin yourself?” Success is a strong brew. It can go straight to the head. The solution is not failure but a funny bone. Satire is spread throughout the Jewish scriptures as a check against megalomania as well as myopia. Prophets spoofed idolaters and idols as emperors without clothes. They were jesters.

In Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, Dagonet is a knight who serves as Arthur’s jester. Initially knighted as a joke, most knights viewed him as a joke, an outsider. But in Tennyson’s Idyllis of the King, Dagonet is the only one in the Round Table who can see the impending doom cast upon Camelot. He mocks the knights who are blind to this but is not taken seriously. You can hear the knights. “C’mon, you’re not a real knight.” The tragedy, writes Tennyson, is while Dagonet was “who was thought of as a buffoon,” he was “the only one to foresee the doom that would come upon them all.”

It’s too often the case that senior executives belittle outsiders. Court jesters and sages aren’t really business people. They have no real business experience. Shakespeare wrote of Dagonet but didn’t belittle him. Dagonet was an important voice, seeing through hypocrisy and immorality. In Tennyson’s “The Last Tournament,” he recognizes Tristram and Isolt’s immoral relationship and refuses to dance to what he calls Tristram’s “broken music,” symbolic of the breaking of the moral order. Similarly, in Edwin Arlington Robinson’s Merlin, Dagonet is unable to sing at Arthur’s request because of the illicit sexual affair between Lancelot and Arthur’s wife, Guinevere. At the end of Robinson’s poem, Dagonet says he has now become Merlin’s fool, and the seer and jester leave Camelot together. This leaves an incomplete roundtable.

Lacking sage and court jester, Arthur tries to reinvent the Round Table. Reinventing is symptomatic of thinking inside the box.

“Merlyn,” he said, “approved of the Round Table. Evidently, it was a good thing at the time. It must have been a step. Now we must think of making the next one.”

Arthur didn’t require a new Round Table. He required a renewed roundtable, refreshing the original completed version. That included sage and court jester, outside the box thinkers providing outside voices cutting it straight with you. Arthur no longer saw a need for those voices. As Merlin lamented toward the end of Arthur’s kingdom, “The old man had always been a dutiful thinker, never an inspired one.”

Dutiful means habitual. On average, it take six months inside an organization for an employee to become habituated, adapted to the culture and thinking inside the box, an insider. The Round Table was entirely insider. It couldn’t think outside the box. A dutiful thinker is typically a confident leader who is always searching for answers and anticipating the future, but entirely inside the box. That’s how most executives operate.

Further evidence of Arthur’s incomplete roundtable is how he didn’t adequately vet his reinvention plan, gathering input from outsiders. Merlin wasn’t asked because he already knew (having already lived the future) that Arthur’s reign would come to a tragic end. He and Dagonet weren’t asked because they were long gone.

The remaining knights were insiders, including Lancelot, Arthur’s best friend, military commander, and the chief protector of the king and queen. But Lancelot was having an affair with the queen, something Arthur suspected. This made it difficult for them to have candid discussions. The truth was choked back, similar to work environments where the delivery of advice that may run counter to the CEO’s beliefs is held in check.

As honey attracts more bees than vinegar, so the carrot is better than the stick. But on some occasions it’s good to recall what a stick looks like. In this case of King Arthur, it was ultimately an incomplete roundtable. A cautionary tale reminding us to complete it.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike


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