I’ve been troubled by a story I recently read about the suspension (and probable termination) of a high school principal, apparently for some minor rule infractions. This principal came out of retirement to lead a troubled school with low performance and a high dropout rates. During her decade at the helm, every performance measure for the school has improved dramatically.
I will admit that I don’t know all the facts behind this story and probably never will. I do, however, know a few things about rules, institutions, and leaders:
- The number and inflexibility of rules goes up as an entity becomes larger and older. The progression from organism to organization to institution is sadly predictable and is closely correlated to decreased effectiveness.
- Those who tout the need for and benefit of rigid rules fail to see the negative impact on employee engagement. As Jim Collins notes, “Most companies build their bureaucratic rules to manage the small percentage of wrong people on the bus, which in turn drives away the right people on the bus” (Good to Great).
- Success often requires breaking rules. In Deep Change, Robert Quinn tells of a governmental agency that wanted to capture the stories of several of their leaders that had successfully led turnarounds in their departments. The story-telling project was cancelled when it was discovered that each of the leaders had broken one or more rules in their change efforts.
- Success is not guaranteed. Leaders who want to make a difference know that they must take risks. Sometimes that means an experiment that doesn’t work. Other times an experiment exceeds expectations, but violations of internal rules triggers punishment, as in the case of the principal.
This is an odd blog for me to write, because I tend to be a rule follower. But I am ultimately drawn back to Warren Bennis’ oft repeated definition that “leaders do the right things” rather than always trying to “do things right” (i.e., follow all the rules). Are you letting unnecessary rules keep you from leading well?
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