Leader Thoughts: The Megaphone Effect
As a young Army officer, I commanded a basic training unit. One day, I was staying late and chatting with the Drill Sergeants (they always worked late). The day’s business was concluded and we were unwinding with small talk. In the moment, I failed to remember I wasn’t “one of the guys.” I failed to remember I was the commander. Someone told an off-color joke and we all laughed. Then I told one.
Less than 24 hours later, I found myself standing at attention in front of my commander. He asked me several direct questions which I answered directly. One of my sergeants had been offended by my joke. My joke had been in poor taste and should never have been told. But I did tell it.
It didn’t help that I had had issues with the sergeant previously. I thought we had worked them all out and it was water under the bridge. Whether he was actually offended or not is irrelevant. I had no business telling those sorts of jokes and that’s when I stopped telling dirty jokes period, regardless of company.
I learned three lessons from the incident. First of all, I was embarrassed. My behavior did not reflect my personal values and they did not reflect the values of my organization (the Army). I received a written reprimand which was unusual but deserved.
My second lesson was about dealing with the people who worked for me. I thought our prior differences were resolved and behind us; my sergeant did not and he had not forgotten. My comments gave him ammunition and he took full advantage of it. That happened over twenty years ago and it was wrong then. If it happened today, the consequences would be greater.
Regardless of the bad blood between me and a subordinate, my joke was disrespectful. By virtue of the commander laughing at a dirty joke and then telling one, the message sent, intended or not, was those kinds of jokes and comments were okay. The leader had modeled the incorrect behavior. Off-color jokes weren’t okay then and they aren’t okay now.
My third lesson is really the point of this piece and that’s as a leader, you don’t have the luxury of casual remarks and idle speculation. Your personal conduct is always being observed as an example of what’s right or at least…