Family legend has it that my uncle Johnny got his job on the Philadelphia police department by fighting for it. It was the heart of the Depression and a city politico brought the local Irish boys to his office and told them he had two jobs he could hand out.
One job was on the Fire Department. The other was with the Police Department. The politico sent the young men out back to fight for the jobs. The last one down would get the fire job. The last one standing would become a police officer. Johnny was the last one standing. He went to work that night.
I don’t know if that story is true. I do know that Uncle Johnny had hands like padded concrete blocks and that they served him well in many fights during his three decades on the police force. He was a good, tough fighter, but he didn’t like to fight if he didn’t have to.
Johnny was a great cop in an age when cops worked mostly alone on their beats. His mind and gift of gab were more important than his fists out there.
If there was someone causing a ruckus, Johnny would deal with it. He took some troublemakers to jail, but most of the time he straightened them out. Johnny would walk into bar brawls alone and leave a quiet bar behind him when he was done.
Johnny had a lot of little sayings. One of my favorites is: “The law is a backup.” He thought that using the law, arresting someone, was something you did when nothing else worked.
It’s a good rule for bosses, too. The great formal structure of organizational discipline is what you go to after you’ve used up the informal ways you have to improve behavior or performance. Most effective supervision, like most of Johnny’s effective police work, happens in the informal part of the work
Boss’s Bottom Line
Most effective supervision is informal. It happens in the cracks in the system.