When to Break the Rules

By | January 27, 2021

[January 27, 2021]  Long ago, as an Infantry Platoon Leader, I lead a convoy on a route that I did not explore in advance.  My task was simple, “Take your platoon to the barracks on a pre-determined route.”  I skipped the step, got my unit lost (temporarily), and was late arriving at my destination.  I simply did not know when to break the rules.

We were tired from three weeks in the field conducting maneuvers, so I did not travel the route in advance to check it out.  The distance was short, daylight and sunny, I knew the way, and it would be an “easy” drive.  What I didn’t realize was that a road had been closed the day prior.  If I had done a proper on-the-ground reconnaissance, a rule that never changes, I would have found the closure and modified my route.

Rules exist for a reason.  Rules are not random creations meant to aggravate or constrain people.  They are there to create order and help things run smoothly.  It is nearly always a good idea to follow the rules.  It’s the smart thing to do.  When you follow the rules, you typically get good results.

However, there are times when to break the rules.

  1. Break a rule is when it has outlived its usefulness. A rule that still exists and there is a consensus such a rule creates problems; then we can be confident that breaking it is beneficial.  Nevertheless, we must understand why the rule existed in the first place and be mindful of the consequences of breaking the old rule.
  2. Break a rule when it leads to innovation.  To break a rule, one must first understand why it exists and know what will happen if that rule is broken.  If you can make an improvement in efficiency or effectiveness by breaking a rule, do so with care.  Determine what that is and weigh it against the gain one gets from breaking the rule.
  3. Break a rule to achieve a higher goal. Sometimes lower-level rules can be broken to allow for a higher-order outcome.  The U.S. Army teaches us to plan for any mission (like using reconnaissance).  Yet, if we see an opportunity (a higher goal) with a more significant payoff, then go for it.  As long as we know the costs and benefits in doing so, then violate that rule.
  4. Break a rule when given permission. If you are given proper authority/permission, breaking a rule can be acceptable.  But, a warning comes with this advice.  Rules have symbolic value regardless of the reason we are breaking them.  There will always be consequences.

If you are unaware of why a rule exists, the best advice I can give is, “Don’t break that rule.”  If you think no one is looking, think again, and take great care with breaking any rule. You won’t be seen as a maverick or rebel; you’ll be seen as an idiot.

Leaders are being watched all the time.  People gain inspiration from leaders and attempt to immolate them.  Breaking a few rules here and there will be seen as a form of privilege or abuse of power.  Neither are good decisions made by a real leader.

Don’t break the rules unless necessary.  It rarely pays.

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

22 thoughts on “When to Break the Rules

  1. William Baysnith

    Good article, Gen. Satterfield. I always enjoy what I read here.

  2. Deplorable John

    Good list and useful. Too many young leaders don’t know this. I suspect your list would be helpful if they took the time out to learn. But, I doubt they will. Most of us learned the hard way how and when to break rules.

  3. Anya B.

    I’m new to this leadership blog, so just wanted to say that I’ve enjoyed surfing thru the articles.

    1. Randy Goodman

      Welcome aboard, Anya. I think you will find this site exciting, informative, and very very useful. It is not just for those who are in leadership positions but for all those who are interested in being better preople.

  4. KenFBrown

    “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
    Pablo Picasso

    1. old warrior

      Yes, ha ha ha…. then you just might get your butt kicked by an old warrior like me.

      1. Dennis Mathes

        You got me there, old warrior. Rebels are good when they are creative and innovative (like Gen. Satterfield noted) but usually these so-called rebels are out for trouble and are acting out their beast to create chaos for us all. They often need to be reigned in a bit.

      2. Steve Dade

        Good comments here on Gen. Satterfield’s leadership blog. Hard to find truly worthy sites where the info is funny, easy to remember, and educational. 🍀

        1. Jeff Blackwater

          I think so as well. That is why I’m also new here and think this is great.

  5. Valkerie

    When to break the rules, great topic. Long overdue. Thanks General Satterfield.

  6. Harold M. Smith II

    In some organizations or small groups, rules are rigidly adhered to out of a sense of good. Like being a religous person or a soldier on the battlefield. Their rules are tough, mean something important, and are enforced. While most of society today grows up with the idea that rules are just an impediment to their “good self.” No wonder snowflakes at college are so priviledged.

    1. Army Captain

      Harold, well said. Rule for the military are enforced but we also tell our folks WHY they exist and thus show them the importance. We also discuss “shortcuts” and why that is usually not a good idea. It’s part of the program. It helps our soldiers (or sailors, Marines, airmen) know when to break the rules (rarely) and when to fully adhere to them (often).

  7. Tom Bushmaster

    I never thought of it this way, so thanks Gen. Satterfield for putting rule breaking into perspective. 😊

  8. Yusaf from Texas

    Excellent. I don’t need the list because I’m very carefully about it anyway. There are also people out there who’se very being is tied to specific rules (e.g., laws, regulations, guidelines). When you change the rule, they get upset and will attack you.

    1. Audrey

      Yusaf, we call them “bureaucrats” and they hinder just about everything.

      1. Willie Shrumburger

        Yeah, and Gen. Satterfield in this leadership blog has written about them as “gatekeepers.” He doesn’t have much of a good opinion on them. I think he sees them as obstacles to progress.

  9. Eric Coda

    I can’t think of any other reason to ‘break the rule,’ can you? Well done, Gen. Satterfield. Some people however break the rules, just to break the rules and see what happens. Maybe we call it innovative but sometimes it is just evil running wild.

    1. JT Patterson

      Yes, another exceptional article and the reason so many of us here are regular readers of this leadership blog.

      1. rjsmithers

        yes, I especially enjoy the mini-series that gen. satterfield provides on occasion.
        keep up good works.
        enjoy all the comments.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.