Stupid Rules – How to Figure if Yours Are

A “Reading for Leading” reader — I’ll call her Ann — pushed back in a private email to me.  She wrote these two paragraphs:

In a future newsletter, you may want to distinguish between rules to be broken and those that should be honored.  To me, the first are ones imposed without consent (English taxes on the American colonies).  The second are those which honor individual rights (not killing protects man’s right to live, not stealing to possess that which he has earned, not lying protects integrity).   


If one of the requirements of employment is that the applicant agrees to follow the rules of the organization, then he has consented to them, if hired.  In that instance, breaking his promise by breaking the rules would be dishonest.  On the other hand, if a company encourages individual innovation and provides an avenue for it, that would be the place for employees to break rules that they believe are holding back the growth and usefulness of the company.

There are three ways I invite you to look at this important critique with me:

First, her pushback demonstrates two biases in my thinking.  For those familiar with Myers Briggs, I am an iNuitive Perceiver (NP). People like me naturally love the big picture, and we love to keep options open. I confess that most people like me, flat-out don’t believe in rules; instead we see nearly all rules (which I’m distinguishing here from laws) as “guidelines that line up with principles we revere, yet which should bend to particular circumstances.” That is a bias that people like me have. We like general principles, openness, and the freedom to act in what seems the most sensible way.  Whether it’s jaywalking when there are no oncoming cars, writing sentences that sometimes don’t have a verb, or beginning every meeting with a written agenda, we like to do our own thing.

My second bias, perhaps indistinguishable from the first is, that I fundamentally believe adults will make much better decisions when they are treated like adults who can exercise judgment than when they are guarded by rules and police and heavily constraining strictures and structures. Further, I believe most institutions will grow and prosper much better if they are made up of adults who treat others as adults; rather than as people who are largely some combination of selfish, deceitful, lazy, dishonest, and undisciplined “adults.” And, I believe — as I was ranting last week — that this latter description of people as untrustworthy continues to be the force that profoundly informs and forms our institutions, from family to grade school  to high school, higher ed, to work. I unashamedly endorse a movement from this fear-based, rule-dominated world to one which champions shared ownership, initiative, freedom, communication and risk-taking.

Here is where the title of today’s blog comes in:  Stupid Rules – How to Figure if Yours Are.

My biases sure as heck don’t make me right. And many (for example, my Myers Briggs opposite Sensing Judgers SJ’s) will say those biases of mine are downright dangerous. They’ll ask: So, do you get to run red lights, decide which tax laws to follow, or otherwise substitute your judgment for that of your city, workplace, or religion (are you one of those “cafeteria Catholics” who picks what teachings they like and ignore those they don’t, for instance?).

These are important questions, which take me to the core principle that I left implicit as though it were obvious:  If we want our people to exercise initiative and judgment in the best interest of our city or store or church or project, then we should focus more heavily on the principles than the rules. It’s not about substituting personal judgment for age-old wisdom and rules; it’s about using judgment in alignment with the vision, values, goals and principles.  And when that’s what’s going on I’d say to Ann:  Yes, tell them to break the rules. Tell them to satisfy the customer. Or to take long enough with a sales prospect to really understand what’s going on. Or give them discretion to extend a longer payment period for a customer where that may build a stronger relationship with them.  And then talk about it.

Build structures so we can communicate when we have broken a rule or ignored a guideline, but not for the purpose of punishing and paying homage to the rule, but as a way of continually refining judgment and supporting the pursuit of adult decision making.  In this scheme, the authority — whether parent, priest, principal, or manager – is not cop to the kids who need to be policed, but is fellow learner, applying principles to realities in complex and changing worlds.  Such are the richest discussions I have with my kids, my students, and my clients, as we all seek to

Lead with our best selves.


  • I think this was one of your best columns ever. I think our society is set back by too many people living in fear that they are breaking some “stupid rules”. Sometimes it is true that forgiveness is better to receive than permission, if what we do does have a less valuable outcome than we hoped.

  • Dan
    It is your best column ever. If only more people espoused the leadership principles you present, life would be better. I detect a Jesuit education. Can you help us find a job that utilizes this philosophy?

  • To co-opt a Chinese proverb a tad: “There are neither rewards nor punishments when you break a rule… there are consequences.” And now I will Co-Opt my Marine father: “Take due notice thereof and govern your NP moments accordingly.”

  • One issue on rules in the workplace is freedom of speech and personal ethics. The example I have seen is an employee who was fired due to having given frank criticism about a hospital’s quality of medical service, in a private conversation, which happened to be over heard by a hospital executive. Employees are not allowed to warn their friends or family about problems they perceive at the facility! I think in the long run this kind of thing has hurt the facility, in that it appears to me that more persons are choosing other facilities for surgeries that are elective, or have time to be scheduled as opposed to emergency.

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