A leader without authority is a shark without teeth. And a shark without teeth is no leader at all.
In most cases as a leader, you should never show your teeth. Almost never should you even make it a point that you even have “teeth.” But you must let it be known, because when lines are crossed and rules are bent, your people must understand that there will be consequences.
For six weeks, my employees at the new restaurant had begun settle into their roles nicely. Everyone knew their jobs, everyone was learning from their mistakes, and the team was starting to build a sense of camaraderie. That is, except for our friend “O” the pizza guy.
If you recall, O was one of the owner’s “untouchables.” He was a talented pizza maker who thought that because he was so good, he could get away with coming in late, disrespecting his coworkers, and playing on his phone all day. And for about 10 years, he did get away with it because the owner valued his talent over his character, his loyalty over principle.
When O came to work at my restaurant, I made it known to the owner that I wouldn’t allow that trend to continue. Perhaps it was my first misstep with the owner, but I had done so much work to build a cohesive, high-character team, that I was not going to allow one rotten apple to ruin it.
Less than a month in, I was reaching my breaking point with O. I didn’t care how good he was at making pizza. He was affecting the morale of the staff. I confronted him about. I told him that the owner wasn’t going to save him, and that if he didn’t get back in line, I’d have to get rid of him. So, in that moment, he took it upon himself to take off his apron and walk out in the middle of his shift. The timing wasn’t ideal, but I was pleased that sending a message was easier than expected.
A shark with no teeth
One person who was not pleased, however, was the owner. And it wasn’t because of O’s behavior and negative effect on the team. He wasn’t pleased because I had allowed O to leave. I was stunned. I couldn’t believe that I—the one responsible for building a successful restaurant—was at fault for allowing the only person trying to tear it down, to leave.
The next day, in a stunning move, the owner brought O back. It was a moment I’ll never forget, because it was the moment the owner rendered me as a shark with no teeth. If I didn’t have the power to enforce the rules on the worst offender, then how could I enforce them with anyone else? If the staff saw that I had no teeth, what kind of message would that send?
I decided to quietly stand my ground. I would not allow O to become even more emboldened by the owner’s reckless actions. I would hold the line, but rather than strike when the iron was hot, I decided to wait until things cooled down. I needed to find the right time to show my teeth.
One final bout of fireworks
I waited a week to see if O would change. Predictably, he didn’t. His presence became even more inflammatory to the already tense atmosphere at the restaurant. With his return, he was actively influencing some of the staff to either look for a new job or take on his bad habits.
One day, my kitchen manager was in an intense argument with O. He had called O out on more of his antics. Tensions were becoming high, and I had to step in. It was time to take decisive action and fire O once and for all. So right then and there, I raised my voice for the first time in front of the staff and made sure O knew he would not be allowed back in the restaurant.
And with one final bout of fireworks, O was gone for good.
The owner would understand my decision, but I had a strong sense that he couldn’t accept it. He knew I was trying to maintain a certain standard at my restaurant, but his loyalty to O was much stronger than his judgment. Instead of letting O go, he reassigned him to another location. But the fact that O was no longer my problem was all I cared about.
When a line is crossed…
To my employees, that critical moment when I fired O was a bit out of character. They had always known me to be calm, cool, and collected. In fact, so much so, that some even thought I was too nice. Once I yelled at O, it set the tone for the rest of the staff. They knew that as cool, calm, and collected as I normally was, they did not want to experience the other side of that. And as they learned, when a line is crossed, there will be consequences, even if the owner tries to prevent them. The staff learned that my authority still had teeth.
There are few reasons to ever show your teeth to your subordinates. It should always be an unspoken, unseen, but well-known fact that your “teeth” exist. But do not ever show them unnecessarily. You don’t want to risk heightening tensions or intimidating your people more than necessary.
Use your authority as a tool, but not a weapon.
Show your teeth responsibly.
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