3 Rules Leaders Should Not Implement


Most of us have jobs that are too small for our spirits. – Studs Terkel

The late Erma Bombeck once put out a list of widely read “Rules” that was quite popular at the time. Some of them you might recall. Here are a few of my favorites: never have more children than you have car windows; seize the moment, remember all those women on the Titanic who waved off the dessert cart; never go to a class reunion pregnant, they will think that’s all you have been doing since you graduated.

While that list is rather light-hearted and humorous some rules can be stifling as it relates to the operation of your organization. Let’s be clear at the onset; policies and procedures are necessary and this is not about chunking your manuals out the window. Systems operate best when they follow a prescribed course of procedure.

In his book, “It’s Not About the Coffee,” Howard Behar (past President, Starbucks International) pens a fascinating chapter about independent thinking. Behar writes, “We want people to take charge instead of blindly following a rigid set of rules from a book…unfortunately, in many cases the rule book goes too far- it tries to tell people how to be instead of explaining what we’re trying to do. Rules don’t empower, they dispower people. We need recipes, not rules.”

Operating policies and procedures need to be known and adhered to and should be subservient to the person performing them and not the other way around. Yet when rules go too far it can have unintended consequences that can do more harm than good. From the chapter I surmised three rules that leaders don’t need to implement if they want their people and organizations to be successful.

Rules that restrict creative thinking

Unleashing the best and brightest people in your organization begins when you free them from burdensome rules and regulations that hold them back. “Ideally, management should never tell someone how to do something or what to feel. If people’s every last action is dictated to them, they are robbed of their dignity, and the company is robbed of its soul,” writes Behar.

When you give your people the liberty to think, feel, grow and experiment they will surprise you with their ingenuity. When you have more recipes being developed than rules being followed then the possibilities for success are multiplied. Your organization can be incubator for growth and unlimited potential or it can be place where ideas go to die. Which do you want?


Rules that control behavior

Ideally, your rule book should operate more like a play book. It should contain plays you can call and be filled with options for any scenario that puts you in a position you to score. Behar’s analysis is a timely challenge for managers and executives. He writes, “Instead of writing manuals that lock people into dehumanizing behavior, we should focus on outcomes we want and the reasons behind them…creating tool books instead of rule books grows people’s spirits.” Consider the difference; if your leadership style is to simply be the “keeper of the rulebook” then it will be difficult for your people to grow and reach their full potential and your leadership will be diminished.

When you place your focus on where you are going and why (your vision and purpose) and the growth and development of the people who will take you there, then the rule book must become your play book. When you grow your people’s spirits you won’t have time to worry much about their behavior.

Rules that hinder personal growth

“There’s no better feeling than being encouraged to fully use your abilities,” writes Behar. “You will find your work far more satisfying, and you’ll encourage that same satisfaction in others. Everybody wins. The more we know ourselves and our goals, the fewer rules are needed.” This point is simple yet profound. Your people need more encouragement not more rules.

Fostering a culture of personal growth and development comes when a leader makes it a priority by removing unnecessary rules, by empowering his people, and caring enough to get out of their way. When leaders place more value in rules than relationships then victories are harder to come by and are fewer in number.

The challenge for you as a leader as it relates to rules is to find the right balance between what’s needed and what’s not, if they help your organization or if they hurt it, and ultimately, do your people need the rule to succeed? Your task as a leader is to know the difference.

What do you say?


© 2014 Doug Dickerson



About dougdickerson

I am Certified Leadership Trainer, author, columnist, and speaker. Husband to Alicia, father to Katelyn and Kara, and "Pop" to terrific grandson Tyson. I am an avid photographer, love the outdoors, and like to travel. I'm passionate about sharing my leadership insights and helping people reach their full potential.
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