Sometimes the lessons leaders need to learn come from comedy. In this case I'm reminded of a skit that was on Saturday Night Live in the 80's.

leaders / Pixabay

In this particular skit, the priest went to see the mother superior because he'd been troubled by the behavior of some of the nuns recently. What he realized is that this particular mother superior, played by Mary Gross, had a very sarcastic mouth, and thus she would have these very sarcastic responses to questions the other nuns asked her and they'd go out and act on them.

It was a very funny skit, but it was also intriguing. The priest realizes what's going on and chews her out for it. She states that she had never realized that she had that kind of power and that she would watch what she said from that point on. Of course this is comedy, so she says something sarcastic as he leaves and hears a nun acting on it as the skit ends.

When people are in a leadership position or are perceived as leaders, they often don't realize the extent of their power or authority until people start acting on it. I remember an apocryphal story many years ago about a hospital chief financial officer who was fired because he yelled at some people in the accounting department for some stupid reason and yelled out "you might as well just shred every record in those filing cabinets because they're useless to me now." Hours later, he went back to that department looking for something, only to find out that everything had been shredded. He was livid, but found himself being dismissed because the CEO felt his behavior was inappropriate and he wasn't about to fire an entire department.

Strangely enough, I used to find people acting on things I'd say from time to time, even though they didn't work for me. I try hard to couch a lot of my advice into options instead of specific actions to take because I don't want them to think I'm giving them orders.

I've always tried to point out scenarios to people instead of telling them what to do unless they worked for me. Yet, sometimes people hear what they want to hear and act on something I said instead of thinking it through. As a consultant that type of thing works great when I'm being paid to offer my opinion, but in general that's kind of scary. I knew that I had some sort of authority when I was a director, but now that I work for myself, I've learned that there's a different type of authority that I sometimes have to take care to temper.

Why would anyone listen to me? I had to think about that one for a while and I finally realized that people listen to me because they trust me or believe I'm in charge; sometimes I am. I think it's a different thing when you have people reporting to you versus when people recognize you have some authority even if it's not over them.

With that kind of trust comes a responsibility that I recognize I have to have. If I'm going to give any type of advice, like the things I talk about on this blog, I need to make sure that it's as good as it can be, while still leaving myself open for those who wish to debate the topic.

I will own up to this though. There are times when I'll intentionally adopt the tons of authority if I need something to get done. Consultant's sometimes have to do that; it can't always be a democracy. But I always try to be fair and not enact that authority all the time. Most of the time I put it through as a request, and because I like to think I treat people right they'll often acquiesce.

Truthfully, I think that's about as responsible as most leaders can be. We can't think we're so smart just because people listen to us that we don't open ourselves up for criticism from time to time or someone else's point of view. We also shouldn't take advantage of our position when it's not warranted.

If you as a leader don't understand your influence and temper your words to your employees and others, you could end up out of a job like the CFO I mentioned above. How's that for a story ending?