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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Rules to Break: That's How We Have Always Done It

"You are remembered for the rules you break." -Douglas MacArthur  

The MacArthur quote is especially true when you consider leadership.  If you don't break any rules you will continue to do the same things every day.  I thought I'd start a new series about the rules that leaders should be breaking.

The first rule in the series is more of a habit many leaders fall into.  It involves using the phrase "That's how we have always done it."  This is the cornerstone for answers about initiatives, procedures, etc. that do not make any sense.  If you are not convinced, try the following exercise.

  • Pick something in your organization that doesn't make any sense, drives your crazy or gets in the way of the real work.
  • Ask someone who has been in the organization for an extended period of time the following question: Why do we do that anyway?
  • What answer are you likely to get?  The answer will be some variation of, "I'm not sure. That's the way we have always done it."

This is unfortunately also the answer to the most important question (WHY?) we can ask as leaders. These "that is how we have always done it" moments are also the things that are preventing change or improvement in organizations.  As a leader take inventory of all of your "that's how we have always done it" moments.  

  • Can you answer the WHY question about your decisions, initiatives, and changes? 
  • Does the answer to the WHY question actually match up with your stated values and beliefs?

Effective leaders move from "That's How We Have Always Done It" to "This is WHY we are doing it." The WHY must have a strong foundation in order to build an outstanding organization.

There are many other rules that leaders should break.  I'll try to capture more in the coming weeks. In the meantime...

What rules do you think leaders should break?


  1. Terrific post. A topic I'll be discussing in part with leadership tomorrow. Thanks.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting Maureen. Good luck with your "That's How We Have Always Done It" inventory.

  2. Hmm...very refreshing post, Brian. This is the first time I've had the pleasure of finding your blog...but will be checking back often. You post has me thinking of 'Rules' and which ones leaders should break. On one hand, as leaders we often set the 'Rules', so there are many pros/cons in breaking our own 'Rules'. Equally so, it can be very, very powerful to break the pre-existing established 'Rules' either through due process - changing a 'Rule', or by shear zeal - charging ahead regardless of due process. I have said it for a while now that I dream of a school where we don't have any 'Rules' - where students, staff, and parents would know in their hearts and minds what is 'Right' and would act accordingly. So, to answer your question, "What rules do you think leaders should break?", I would say: Break the 'Rule' that says there should always be a set, black and white 'Rule'.