Leadership and Breaking the Rules

This post is a refreshed version of one I wrote in 2010.  While I’m not among those who believe rules are made to be broken, I do think some of us have a nasty habit of clinging to them long after they have passed their “sell by” date.  So here is my perspective on rules, along with a couple of things to think about before deciding to break them.


I think we can agree that one of the key attributes for successful leaders today is the ability to adapt quickly to new situations.   We may also agree that in order for society to function in a reasonably harmonious way, there must be rules.

And there are all kinds of them.

In general, rules are put in place to ensure personal safety and to keep things in balance.  They are also imposed to provide structure in organizational settings that support the work and build a broad framework within which individuals are free to operate and contribute.

Some people are of the opinion that rules are made to be broken.  In fact, they are so convinced of this, they see no point in learning them in the first place.  The resulting behaviour from this laissez-faire approach is a kind of chaos that tends to serve no one in the end.  It lacks maturity and I hazard to say, increases, rather than diminishes, the need for more rules.

But sometimes rules really do only serve to get in the way.

In a world where improvisation is key to success, yesterday’s rules can be today’s impediment.  Old rules often slow the flow of progress, sometimes down to a trickle.  They stifle creativity and innovation.  And they create roadblocks to the implementation of needed change.  From this perspective, I think it safe to say that the work of leadership includes breaking rules.

But before we go off and begin declaring war on rules, I think we need a few, um, rules, to ensure that the breaking process provides as great an opportunity for a positive result as possible.

To start with, I can think of two rules that work for me:

First, before eliminating or dismissing existing rules, seek to understand why they were made in the first place.

It is pretty easy to make assumptions about why rules were made but before completely eliminating them, I think it wise to question their initial purpose.  If that purpose is no longer relevant, then throwing them out is probably a good thing.

And second, be prepared to accept the consequences that may come from circumventing or defying rules

There is always the chance that circumventing a rule can cause grief for someone else, somewhere else in the organization or outside it.  Breaking an established rule usually comes with a measure of risk.  As they often say in retail stores about handling merchandise, “ If you break it you own it”. Owning our choice to break rules in service of facilitating change is, I think, part of being a responsible leader

So, having said all of that, I have a confession to make.  I am an inveterate rule follower.  It was ingrained in me as a child to be good… to follow the rules.  And yet, in my growing, (ahem), maturity I really see the need to continually question rules that make no sense to me.  After all, most rules are conceived and administered by people. And most will come to a place where they are no longer useful or relevant to our lives or businesses.

If we are to encourage the innovators of our time we must also accept that rules should be subject to rigorous question and challenge. Settling for something because that’s the rule or that’s the way it is, is simply not good enough.   If we doubt it, we just have to reflect on the accomplishments of people like Nelson Mandela, Dr Emily Stowe, Rosa Parks and people like Richard Branson and Anita Roddick, each of whom defied convention, broke rules and challenged the status quo, sometimes at great personal cost.

Rules are meant to serve us, not the other way around. And so, if we are to adapt to new and changing circumstances quickly we must also have the courage to break a few rules along the way.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?


Filed under communication, Leadership, Leadership Development, Management, organizational culture

12 responses to “Leadership and Breaking the Rules

  1. Isn’t that the reason why there are managers and gouvernement. If rules would never change, after the verry first gouvernement who made de rules we would only need police to make sure we follow the rules and no gouvernement.
    Good story!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Yes, there is something in what you say. I think too, that managers and governments can become too attached to the rules they make. And, rules are sometimes used as a substitute for the real work required of a good leader. So, it’s a good thing to have rules and a better thing to have a mechanism in place that allows for them to be questioned from time to time.
      Thank you for your comment and for taking the time to express it here.

  2. Gwyn, thanks for reviving this post – and I gave a hardy ‘Amen’ to your two rule variants. Rules tend to define the boundaries of the arena we get to work and play in. Sometimes those boundaries are flexible, sometimes rigid, but we’ll never know the difference if we don’t push on them from time to time.
    Thank you for your thoughts,

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Carl ~ Agreed! Pushing against the edges of boundaries that we assume are sacred can turn up some surprising possibilities. Thanks for that!

  3. Pingback: Leadership and Breaking the Rules | Spark The Action | Scoop.it

  4. Hey Gwyn – I couldn’t agree more! It reminds me of a post I made a while back, but you did a much better job of articulating how it relates to our role as leaders and as managers. http://inspirationbriefcase.com/topics/productivity/64-the-rule-economy-part-i-dont-follow-rules-think-for-yourself

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Niles ~ Thanks for referencing your own post on this subject. I think you’re right. Rules do have a way of obstructing creative thinking,certainly in the examples you give in your post. I think too, that those rules are different from rules of ethics for which, in my view, there can be no short-cuts. It could be said that our ethical and lawful behaviour comes from rules that distinguish between right and wrong. Beyond that,everything is up for discussion. Thanks for coming by!

  5. Ain’t that the key difference between leaders and managers? The last ones organising work within the existing rules, the first ones questioning from time to time if existing rules are still applicable and if not, try to adjust them? Regrettably it looks like bureaucracy, as they say, ‘too often defends the status quo long past the time the quo has lost its status’. Think this world needs more leaders then managers…

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Ad ~ I see what you’re saying. I hesitate to bring the leader versus manager conversation into this because I am of the opinion that leadership and management are functions of the same job, no matter what title you give it. But, to your point, there are certainly people who work within existing rules without questioning their ongoing efficacy. And, there are people, especially in large corporations and governments that create unnecessary roadblocks to progress by layering rules on rules for reasons that are more self-serving than useful. And that is neither good management nor good leadership. Thank you for giving rise to those thoughts and for taking the time to comment.

  6. The process (rules) should serve the good of the organization not the other way around. Great reminders. Thank you.

  7. Pingback: Leadership and Breaking the Rules | digitalNow | Scoop.it

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