[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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.