Leaders Break the Rules

"Wrong Way" road sign

Leaders need to break the rules. Leading often requires the forging of new paths and doing what’s personally and organizationally uncomfortable—breaking the rules of convention, or process, or accepted knowledge, and almost certainly the rules of accepted culture. If we do not, we are merely maintaining the status quo. Mind you, the purpose of doing so is not likely for the sake of breaking the rules. (Although there are indeed arguments for that.) Doing what’s best for the people and for the organization very often requires breaking rules.

Here are two examples to inspire you. While these are rule-breakings of technology and systems, they are examples we can all identify with.

Circular Airport Runways

Dutch researcher Henk Hesselink has devised an innovative airport design that uses circular runways. Instead of straight runways, Hesselink’s design is a 6.2 mile, circular “racetrack” that increases efficiency and safety, and gives flight control an alternative to shutting down runways when crosswinds are too high.

See A Circular Runway Could Be The Obvious Answer To More Efficient Airports

Elevator Traffic Jam

Who ever heard of an elevator traffic jam? Can’t happen, can it? If you and your car had its own dedicated lane all the way to work and home again, you’d never have a traffic jam either! Well, imagine putting two elevators in the same elevator shaft! That’s exactly what German engineering firm Thyssenkrupp is not just proposing, but actually doing. More than 200 buildings worldwide already use this design that moves 40% more people.

See Sticking Two Elevators In One Shaft is Totally Safe—And a Great Idea

Breaking The Rules

Most of us are not airport engineers. (Is that what Hesselink would be called?) Nor are many of us architectural engineers. But I’m sure you can imagine the uphill battle Hesselink has and whomever first proposed putting two cars in one elevator shaft was probably thought an absolute nut.

When we think of people who break rules and drive innovations we often recall names such as Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, Henry Ford, Orville and Wilbur Wright, William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Steve Jobs.

Those are pretty big icons of revolution and innovation. We can learn a lot from them, but for now…forget them. You’re not likely on a quest to change the world. Don’t let the scope of their challenge discourage you from leading and the need to break the rules in your slice of the world.

You’re just trying to make a process more efficient. You might be trying to improve customer satisfactions scores a few points. You’re trying to figure out how to get your team more engaged this year. You need to devise a way to connect with a new market.

Your challenge is bound by assumed, accepted, and seemingly unbreakable rules. What are these rules? Identify them and begin to assess how they constrain your solution. Then you’ll begin to see what rules need ignoring, bending, or breaking.

As you go forward on this journey, you’ll need to keep a few things in mind.

What is your organizational culture’s tolerance for risk? If it is risk tolerant, that’s a good sign. You’ve probably been encouraged to break the rules already but you just haven’t figured out which rules to break to solve your problem.

If your culture is risk avoidant, this is a deeper challenge. The other points below will be helpful.

Gather the facts. Develop a picture of the situation that establishes urgency for change. Very important: Be sure to tie this picture and the urgency to fulfilling the organization’s mission. Make it all tangible and important. Begin telling this story to a few people and measure their reaction. Look for allies.

Gather allies. As your story unfolds, you will find both allies and detractors. Engage the allies in your quest. Listen to the detractors because they will have great insights, too. They will help you understand the “mines” in the road that lies ahead.

Have courage. It’s not easy to lead change. It’s not easy to break rules and write new ones. This requires perseverance and patience. Celebrate wins with your allies to build one another’s courage.

Rules have a purpose. Rules are what keeps organizations and its people safe in many ways. I’m not suggesting that all rules are bad. I am saying that some rules are in the way of effective leadership and being a good steward of the responsibility for leading people to a better future.

Discerning which rules need to be kept and which need to be broken is one of the core responsibilities of leading.

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.

Photo by NeONBRAND. Photo available at Unsplash under CC0 license. Image modified for size and space.

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