Leadership can be tough, messy business. In many ways, the essence of leadership is mission accomplishment, and this often occurs in a setting of less-than-ideal conditions. Frequently, leaders are faced with advanced leadership problems: resource and time constraints, the choice between poor options, and confounding roadblocks in the form of stifling bureaucratic rules and policies.
In these situations, leaders may find themselves considering whether or not to observe, bend, or break a rule. I suggest that logical thinking will help us determine if and when it is (and is not) acceptable to bend or break rules. I will suggest such a logic for considering when to bend or break rules below, but first, I want to present what I believe is probably the most important consideration of bending and breaking rules:
If you obtain results, deliver the goods, and accomplish the mission, all but the most egregious or flagrant violations will be overlooked and forgiven.
Get results, and all but the worst rule breaking will be forgiven. Mission accomplishment can be like a sea of immunity washing away any and all of your transgressions.
However, just as the above statements are true, so is its opposite: fail to deliver results, and you should expect closer scrutiny for bending and breaking rules. Fail to deliver, and they will come harder and faster rules broken and bent, policies ignored and violated. As with many other dimensions of leadership, much depends on mission accomplishment.
A Logic for Considering Rule Breaking
So, how can you determine when it makes sense to bend, break, or observe? The following logic is my litmus test of bend and break-ability:
1. Is the rule associated with one of the cultural non-negotiable issues? Each culture has those issues that are non-negotiable, and whose violations are taboo. In my career, such cultural non-negotiable issues include finances and money, aviation regulations, safety, and equal opportunity. If the rule you are considering is associated with a cultural non-negotiable, I would strongly recommend that you adhere to strict observance of it.
2. Is the rule regulatory, policy, guidance, or cultural norms? If it is regulatory (law), you're going to have a hard time justifying breaking the law (although I can think of many situations when this could be appropriate). Be very careful here, have a very compelling reason if you decide to bend or break, and expect to be severely reprimanded or fired if you do bend or break.
In my experience, much of policy (written, published standards for the organization) is outdated, unnecessary, and out of touch with how things really happen, so this is often prime ground for bending or breaking. If you get caught bending or breaking policy, (your first defense is mission accomplishment) your second defense is the out datedness of the policy.
Next, when considering whether or not to violate guidance (written or verbal opinion or direction from supervisors), one must consider the quality, strength, temperament, and self-awareness of the issuing supervisor. A hot-head, self-unaware weak supervisor may not tolerate a violation of any sort for any reason. Conversely, a strong, self-aware supervisor may take more delight in the fact that you had the sand to step up and make a tough call (especially if it turns out to be a good call).
Finally, as explicitly stated above, the success of getting away with bending and breaking cultural norms (unwritten standards of how members of your culture are supposed to behave) depends entirely on the end results you obtain. If you are successful, you will be labeled a change agent; if you are not, you will be labeled a radical or misfit.
3. Is there a logical, sensible reason for the rule's existence? If there is a logical, sensible reason for its existence, you better have a good reason for bending or breaking. If it is obviously not appropriate, relevant, or sensible, you may be more enabled to bend or break.
4. Is the rule enforceable? Is the rule frequently enforced? Just because a rule exists, doesn't mean that it is enforceable or enforced. Stop signs. Speed limits. Mattress tags. If it is not enforceable or enforced, break away. On the contrary, if the rule in question is somebody's pet project, you may want to take care.
5. Will I get caught? I know these questions are beginning to sound like criminal thinking, but they are a necessary consideration when performing the risk / return calculation. If you have little or no likelihood of getting caught, the risk associated with obtaining the desired reward is decreased. If you have a very high likelihood of getting caught, the associated consequences and punishment must be more heavily factored into your consideration.
6. If I get caught, how likely am I to get in trouble? Another criminal thinking question, but also another consideration for the risk / reward calculation. What are the consequences for getting caught bending or breaking this rule? Perhaps the consequences are so severe, that bending or breaking the rule is not a feasible option. On the contrary, perhaps the consequences are negligible, and we can bend and break away.
7. How important is the violation of this rule to getting the mission accomplished? Does the bending or breaking of this rule guarantee or significantly increase our chances of mission accomplishment? Is this rule the only thing standing between us and mission accomplishment? This makes the bending or breaking of this rule more compelling, than if the likelihood of mission accomplishment is not significantly increased by the violation of the rule.
8. Is the amount of trouble that I am going to get into worth the benefit of bending or breaking this rule? This is the ultimate martyr calculation. Is the return we get from bending or breaking this rule (and thus, accomplishing the mission) worth the consequences and punishment associated with getting caught?
Please don't misunderstand me: I respect and observe meaningful rules (most of the time). But leadership involves making difficult decisions, and sometimes you have to consider whether or not to bend or break a rule.
With the above-offered logic, I am not advocating that you go around violating rules regularly; instead, I am advocating that you apply a logical thought process to the consideration of rule bending and breaking, and violate rules only when 1) it guarantees or significantly increases your chances of mission accomplishment, and 2) the risk associated with the consequences and punishment of getting caught is outweighed by the return you enjoy by violating the rule.