Rules are the Enemy of Leadership

Posted by Kristin Arnold on April 5, 2016

As managers at a large corporation, we would often joke about how after being promoted we were sent our “brain in a box” – standard operating procedures which told us how to think, what to say, what to do, and how to do it.

It detailed our human resource policies, client engagement procedures, guidelines for dealing with suppliers, spending rules, resolving conflict processes, hiring strategies, termination guidelines, etc. For a new manager this was a great tool because they did not even have to think about major issues. Decisions were made for them!

However, for highly competent and experienced leaders, the “box” often constrained them in many situations from doing the right thing, the right way, at the right time.

During my assignment in the Business Practices Division, we learned that the difference between an average leader and a truly great one was the quality of their decisions. The problem is, rules take decision making out of the hands of the managers. This creates timid managers who just follow orders – often without understanding why. After time, high-potential employees will develop an attitude of vicious compliance.

Leadership is not about following old policies and dogma; it is about forging new directions and addressing the challenges of today’s environment. The fewer decisions a leader makes, the less thinking is required. The less thinking a leader does, the fewer alternatives they produce. Fewer choices results in an organization’s inability to be flexible and responsive to changing market trends and global demographics.

Leadership is not about making employees blindly follow rules. It is about teaching, sharing insights, and helping employees gain the experience that will advance their career, enable them to build self confidence, and earn respect from others.

For decades, I have designed programs that taught experienced leaders how to think and make those critical decisions, and be responsible for the consequences. Here are some guidelines managers can use when a critical decision is required:

  1.  First, gather all the facts pertinent to the decision. Do not to engage in confirmation bias by focusing on only the facts that will lead you toward your preferred option.
  2. Next, determine if the decision is appropriate according to the three major ethical standards:
    • Utility: Does it optimize the requirements of all the stakeholders?
    • Rights: Does it respect the rights of all individuals involved?
    • Justice: Is it consistent with the canons of justice and fair play?

If the answer is a no on all three criteria – stop, go no further!

If it is a resounding yes on all three, then your decision is justifiable and you now have to develop an appropriate process to implement the decision and a method for constructively communicating it to everyone affected.

If the answer is a no to one or two of the three criteria, then you must explore: are there any ‘overwhelming” factors’?   Is there one criterion that should override another, or are there any incapacitating factors? Be sure to think through possible unintended consequences.

3.  As well, does it pass the “double effect” test? This states that if the overall good is better than the harm your decision will initially cause, then it is the right thing to do. For example, terminating an employee when you know their life will be much better as a result.

4. Finally, a criterion everyone should use is: How would you feel if the decision you just made was published on the front page of a national newspaper?

My question for managers this week: “Are you blindly following “rules” or making independent choices based on sound criteria”?


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