Leadership hack 011 – Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men (and women)

We have rules for a reason.  They keep us safe.  You would not get onto a flight if you knew that the pilot was going ignore the aviation air rules during takeoff or landing.  However, what if something happens, something that is not in the rule book?  Or what happens if someone else breaks the rules?

Harry Day, the Royal Flying Corps First World War fighter ace, remarked that “rules are for the obeyance of fools, and the guidance of wise men”.  While this quote is now dated and should refer to both men and women, there is a lot that Harry Day can teach you.  Harry Day was captured by the Germans in WW2 and repeated helped others to escape and many times attempted to escape himself.  He finally escaped, stealing a VW car and driving it to Allied lines.  Harry continually fought against the rules set against him, and in doing so, he saved many lives (see his amazing story here).

Some of the most innovative and disruptive companies have succeeded in bending or breaking the rules or enabling others to bend or break the rules.  Uber allows people to operate a taxi in New York without a taxi medallion, and Air BnB allows people to rent out their homes, even when this is against the terms of their insurance or tenant agreement.

While you may feel that your company is different to Air BnB, and the problems you face may be very different to those faced by Harry Day, you can learn from them both.  Many leadership academics and practitioners argue that when you face tough decisions, the answer may be to avoid the options placed before you and find a ‘third way’, even if this means bending (or in some cases breaking) the rules (see Decisive and Leadership BS).

Bending and breaking the rules is not without consequence.  You will face, policy, bureaucratic and human obstacles, and even if you are careful, you may trigger a regulatory, legal and even public backlash.  Without getting into a debate about ethics, sometimes the ends justify the means, other times they don’t.  You need to be wise enough to know the difference and understanding enough to allow those that follow you to do the same.