I learned this lesson ages ago. I was a lifeguard for a popular water park. I held a position of responsibility for the safety of guest, was a face that represented the park and helped shape the guests experience.
It was a great responsibility. During my two summers I “rescued” a small child and an elderly man whose panic had kept them under water and in danger. But the average day was entirely uneventful and that was a blessing.
However, their existed a class of guests referred to as “season passers”. Some parents rather than have their kids be bored for summer or send them away to camp purchased season passes for their kids who would come to the park once or twice a week, more if the children wanted to master the wave machine (a boogeyboard surf jet). Since the life guards and other staff saw these faces so often, we knew amongst ourselves who was trouble and who wasn’t.
But we only had the illusion of authority.
If the rules were broken, exiting a tube early, cutting in lines, raft stashing, or harassing/taunting life guards who can’t leave their station. Our only course of action would be to blow our whistles and hope that they stopped. But doing so raises awareness of the other guests who are busy enjoying their day at the park. If we wanted to eject someone from the park, the offense must have been bad but also and most importantly the offending party must be 100% compliant and freely agreed to standby the lifeguards station ’til our roving position could come to the station and escort the guests to leave. But if they ran… then they were gone forever. Stories were common they waited for ten minutes then just walked away and I couldn’t leave my station so UGH!.
This is responsibility without authority.
As a lifeguard we had the authority to execute the primary responsibility of guest safety. “No, I’m sorry your to short to ride this buddy.” “Excuse me I’m going to have to ask that you gentlemen leave before I have security escort you out.” or we could jump into the water and “rescue” a 4 foot tall child who doesn’t realize the water is 3 feet deep. We had that authority.
We also had the responsibility to enforce the rules. The rules ain’t there to ruin peoples fun, some of the rides can be dangerous if you are out of your tube and you could hurt yourself or others. Most injuries result from breaking the rules or running carelessly. Climbing and diving from a feature that was aesthetic and not for diving.
Which is why in my second year I taught the new generation, to recognize the season passers and to turn a blind eye to their antics. Because rules or broken in inches, every time a season passer gets away with breaking a rule because the life guard didn’t see it. They assume that if they had been called out it would have meant trouble.
BUT what was important to teach the lifeguards was that if a season passer was called out on a minor rule violation and they realized that “hey the lifeguard can’t leave. I’ll be out of the park and back tomorrow they won’t even remember what I did if they are here too.” leads to major rules violations because now they know for certain their is no penalty for breaking the rules. It’s better to let them think they are getting away with something rather than to expose the truth that they could get away with everything.
Because eventually the summer would end and if they were breaking the rules by inches then hopefully they won’t have caused harm to themselves or others. But if they broke the rules by miles, someone would get hurt.
I knew then that I could not in the future accept a responsibility without the authority to make sure it happens.
Ask yourself do you have the authority to enforce the responsibilities you’ve taken.
Are you responsible for hiring candidates? Do you have the authority to negotiate pay scales?
Are you responsible for meeting the overnight’s production schedule? Do you have the authority to hire staff and use company resources?
Are you responsible for leading a team of sailors through an extended maintenance period on the ship’s diesel engine? Is it within your authority to use command resources to incentivize complaince or dole out reprimands for non compliance? No, the answer is almost always no. The military does have the threat of Non-Judaical punishment but that is extremely rare. No, the military gets things done in a similar fashion to the free world, based on the illusion of authority not it’s actual existence.
It is America’s respect for the illusion of authority that is the root answer as to why drivers in America follow the rules of the road and stop at red lights. I hope we never lose that respect. But I hope you go into the future with the knowledge that if you accept a responsibility without the authority than your as effective as a goat being lead to the alter tasked with making the rain. Either you get lucky and it rains before your burnt or you don’t and are offered up as an appeasement sacrifice.