The Rules Rule

from “If You’re Not Making History, You Are History” by Bob MacDonald


The upside is that rules mandate stability and conformity – eliminating disorder. The downside is that rules mandate stability and conformity – eliminating resourcefulness.

Rules. They’ve always been with us. In fact, when archaeologists found evidence of the first written language deep in a cave in Mesopotamia (circa 3200 B.C.) it’s reported the researchers translated that primitive attempt to use writing to communicate as follows: “No drawing on this wall!” With this one primitive scrawl, rules were born. And we’ve been dealing with them ever since.

Not only have rules existed since man dragged his knuckles across the African Savannah, the more advanced man and his activities have become, the more copious and cumbersome are the rules that decree how to go along to get along.

Rules are necessary and can be good things, because they promote structure, organization, conformity and consistency. Without rules chaos would surely follow, but there are also times when a little flexibility and nonconformity can create a positive type of chaos; the chaos that allows for innovation and progress. The key to being a successful leader is to learn how to use rules to promote stability and structure, without killing the initiative to create and innovate.

Rules are Especially Prolific in the Business World

It seems the rule is that the larger the company, the more the rules. As companies become successful, rules governing process and procedure are implemented in an effort to codify established activities. That’s fine, but the downside to these rules is that they stifle innovation, creativity and risk taking; all components necessary for a company to attain and retain success. All too often complying with these rules becomes the sole objective, rather than progress and performance.

This conflict between the rules of conformity and the freedom of creativity calls for a delicate balance that is rarely resolved by the rules imposed in the business world. It seems that the managers and bureaucrats who support the rules of conformity almost always end up winning; even if the company loses. We’ve all heard the refrain. “Those are the rules and we’ve always done it that way.”

The perceptive leader discovers that, in reality, there are two types of rules: Those that are called “rules of direction” and those that are identified as “rules of performance.”

Rules of direction dictate to people exactly what the task is and how to perform it to achieve an objective. On the other hand, rules of performance set out the objective and broad guidelines outlining what the organization will or will not do to achieve it. The striking difference is that the latter approach to rules gives those charged with realizing the objective the power and freedom to determine the what and how part. Both types of rules promote structure and organization, but only the rules of performance allow for any innovation or creativity.

For example, let’s say you are leading an insurance company and the objective is to become a leader in providing retirement products. Under rules of direction, employees would be told exactly what the products are and how they are to be sold. Using rules of performance the objective would be the same, but those working in the company would be empowered with the freedom to develop and market any variation of product they could conceive, so long as that product met the company guideline of providing income for retirement.

Rule the Rules to Make History

You can’t avoid the reality that you are going to have to live with rules, but that does not mean that you can’t make rules work for you. The key to being a successful leader depends on understanding the two types of rules; along with the strength and weakness of each.

One thing a leader should recognize is that reliance on rules of direction is a clear sign of lack of trust in the worker, while rules of performance send a message of trust and respect. And most workers will echo back the message received from the leader. This means that the leader who makes an effort to rely on rules of performance will ultimately have the best chance to maintain the needed structure and organization, while still giving breath to innovation and creativity.


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