John F. Kennedy said, “Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.” Or, put another way: To make an omelette, you need to break a few eggs. A good career aims for the greatest good, and sometimes you can't get there by following the paths that others have laid out for you to follow. Let’s talk about breaking the rules.
Before someone accuses me (or Kennedy) of being an anarchist, let me say that most of us should obey most of the rules most of the time. Rules exist to help us run on autopilot most of the time so society can function in a more or less sane way. They keep us from having to spend too much time analyzing every situation. On the other hand, many trade unions in the 20th century knew how to handle labor grievances. One way was to declare a work stoppage. The other was to make sure that all union employees followed all management rules literally, which slowed things down as much as a work stoppage would have.
There is a fascinating relationship between leadership and breaking the rules. There are two views of leadership. The first is the military view: a manager who commands people who have no choice but to obey. The second view is more that of a servant leader and of followers who do have a choice. In the end, everyone does have a choice — even if that choice is as mundane as choosing to suffer the consequences of insubordination.
There are two kinds of servant leaders. One kind leads people through territory that he or she already knows. That’s a job, not a career. Even a teacher who fails to challenge his or her students, teaching only by rote, isn’t really following a teaching career. The other leads people into unknown territory — unknown to the leader. That at least means going outside the rules, and sometimes bending or breaking them. That’s a trailblazing career. Anything else is just a job.
Here, of course, we must be carefully attentive to ethics. A hallmark of maturity is knowing when and when not to break the rules. Rules usually come from reasonable people who have overall harmony at heart. It pays to understand these rules’ deep intent, and to carefully ponder whether breaking the rules may cause damage in a way the rules’ framers intended to avoid. The best indicator is your own moral compass. The second best indicator is knowledge — or perhaps just hope — that breaking a rule is in fact for the greater good.
As a career professional, you must always be prepared to face the consequences of breaking the rules. Expect some pain if either your moral compass or your for-the-greater-good predictor are proven wrong. On the other hand, hope to receive the accolades for a job well done if you’re proven right; hence, the popular management saw that it’s easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission. Jerry Weinberg says, “There is no failure — only feedback.”
Managers can help instill that perspective in their organizations. Support your people in breaking the rules now and then. And help the culture to nurture the evolving understanding of rules as they change—because they will. And good professors know that a university is a wonderful "safe" environment for students to practice breaking the rules.
George Bernard Shaw said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
Break the rules.