leadership lane-assist

Rules: last and least for leadership success

The story is told of a 19th century farmer who sent his son out with the family’s trusty old mule to plow a large field. After some time, there came from the field the sound of a loud explosion. The farmer ran to see what could possibly be the source of the conflagration. Upon arriving at the scene, he discovered his stunned mule — sans plow — standing astride the furrow with a singed rear end and his soot-faced son crumpled on the ground holding a now-extinguished match.

A friend from a nearby farm, having heard the explosion, arrived at the scene. He learned from the farmer that the mule’s recent diet and his exertion behind the plow had resulted in — how can I put this delicately? — the mule’s repeated expulsion of large quantities of methane gas. Ever the mischievous and curious one, the son had held a lighted match near the source of the gas “leak” and … well, you can imagine the result. As the neighbor arrived, he heard the farmer mutter to himself, “I just can’t think of enough things to tell that kid not to do!”

What, you now ask, does that rather crude story have to do with my Leadership Lane-Assist principles?

Simply this: rules are the last and least best means of aligning behavior toward institutional goals.

As a leader, you will achieve much greater alignment by emphasizing values and principles than you will by the imposition and proliferation of rules.

rule bookYears ago, our institution’s administrators and faculty decided it was time once again to re-visit the Student Handbook, which was in danger of achieving the size of a medium-sized city’s telephone book (you do remember those dinosaurs, do you not?).

The Student Handbook review process was a more-or-less annual ritual, but this time we determined we should take a more zero-based approach to determining what rules must be retained in order to maintain our students’ compliant comportment. As we took up the discussion, one comment from our veteran Dean of Students arrested my attention: “In many cases, you can associate one of the rules in our handbook to the name of a particular student.”

And there you have it: I just can’t think of enough things to tell that [student/colleague/fill-in-the blank] what not to do.

Oh, rules have their place in an institution — but that place belongs well after principles and values.

Despite its many derivations and permutations, management guru Peter Drucker’s famous aphorism remains relevant: “culture eats strategy for lunch.”

For example, the Hilton hospitality corporation operationalizes its core value of customer service by permitting every employee, no matter the level on the corporate ladder, to spend up to $100 — no permission required, no questions asked — to resolve a customer satisfaction issue. Hilton understands that the power of a value-driven culture eclipses a rules-driven culture every time.

Just recently, I corresponded with an ABHE member college president who gets this. He wrote,

[Rules/standards are] accountability for me and for [our institution]. But it, among other things, can lend itself to creating busyness and preoccupation with things less important. I see this propensity in my own life – being content to be busy and to fill myself with something less than the daily vitality in the Spirit to which Jesus calls us. Accreditation is not the impediment – my own willingness to settle for less, or for busy, is what hinders us.

As a leader, I urge you to curb your tendency to rely on proliferation of rules and imposition of compliance as a substitute for a principled, values-driven organizational culture. Otherwise, like the fabled farmer, you are liable to find yourself muttering, I just can’t think of enough things to tell my people what not to do.

You can do better than that. You have to do better than that.


Rules are last and least for leadership success.


In my next Leadership Lane-Assist installment, I’ll offer a corollary to this principle: Never allow policies to become a substitute for judgment.

Fresh gleanings to fuel your leadership awareness, reflection, and conversations …


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