The Purpose of Rules and Principles

| | Leading Organizations
2012 Olympic Medals

Photo by Paul Hudson

As the US Women’s Team claimed the Team Gymnastic Gold Medal on 7/31/2012, it was bittersweet for Jordyn Wieber of the United States as the reigning World Champion.

While she competed in the Team competition and shares the Gold Medal win, she did not go on to compete in the individual all-around medal round.

That’s because although she placed 5th overall in the preliminary competition, a rule was put in place for the London 2012 Olympics that declared only the top two gymnasts from any one country could go to the finals.  The spirit of the Olympic Competition has always been about the best in the world competing head to head.  Because of this rule, she and her would be competitors were denied that privilege, and some argue the right she and they earned to compete among the best.

Unfortunately unintended consequences often result when a new rule is put in place to address a perceived shortcoming of the old rules or to right a perceived wrong.

There is something we can all learn from this as we think about the rules we put in place, whether it is to maintain order amidst the potential for chaos, to right a wrong, to protect people from harm, or to simply try to ensure there is fairness to all involved.

Rules can of course serve an important purpose.  In the case of the Olympic Gymnastics, if the purpose of this rule was as it seemed to be – to ensure one country didn’t dominate the medal rounds – then perhaps they succeeded.

But did they do so at the expense of what many consider to be a principle of the Olympics – for the best in the world to compete against each other?

We will know whether the Olympic Committee thinks it was a “good” rule to add based on whether they change the rule for the next Olympic Competition or not.

Watching this unfold got me thinking about rules and principles, and how they each serve us in different ways when it comes to living and leading. 

Here are some reflections…

  1. Rules are important when they protect us from the most extreme of potential damaging consequences.

…Yet it is our principles that will guide us in making intelligent choices, when attempts to enforce a rule reveals shades of grey, instead of the black and white world rules are usually are designed to address.

2. Rules can help us to set boundaries for ourselves and others, causing us to consider the consequences, especially if someone is considering breaking one.

…Yet it is our principles that will have us confront our conscience and consider our choice in the context of our integrity.

3. Rules don’t help us to make decisions.  In fact, they often dictate a decision regardless of what our intelligence indicates “this just doesn’t make sense”.

…Yet it is our principles that will guide us and give us the courage to take a stand for doing the right thing whether there are any rules at all, and sometimes in spite of them.

4.  Rules often need to change and adapt with the changing of the times.

…Yet our principles endure often crossing generations and binding our cultures together in the service of the greater good.

I’d love to hear from you.  What do you think?  Is there a #5 to add to this list?


Enter A Comment

Anders Ingerstedt   |   08 August 2012   |   Reply

I think #4 should be more related to facts and knowledge and I assume that is what you mean with it. As rules are sometimes formed on assumptions of a projected behaviour, such rules will need to change as new and better data is becoming available.

Susan Mazza   |   08 August 2012   |   Reply

Great point Anders. I think it is actually a combination of facts and knowledge as well as changing context/beliefs.

Georgia   |   09 August 2012   |   Reply

Susan, thank you for writing this. I would love to quote you in a workshop I’m developing for leaders at our local college. It is about getting rid of rules and policies, and teaching the employees the values and principles of the organization – asking them to always make decisions based upon those.

This is not always easily done, particularly in a highly regulated industry, but when an organization has very high ethics, and values people, they will rarely make decisions in conflict with legal requirements.

I have personally made the statement that rules are meant to be broken, especially if they are harming others, or get in the way of doing what is right. Needless to say, I wasn’t always popular with the HR department.


Susan Mazza   |   10 August 2012   |   Reply

Thanks Georgia – I would be honored to be quoted!

I’m not sure I buy into rules are made to be broken but I totally agree that rules are meant to be challenged, especially when they lead to robotic vs. intelligent behavior.

Ultimately you can’t “legislate” committment. integrity or common sense so I think your focus on shifting from rules and policies to values and principles is critical to succesful organizations not to mention effective leadership!

Please do share your insights as you develop and deliver this program! If you want to guest post on the topic and take it deeper let me know.

okolie ifeanyi kenneth   |   11 August 2012   |   Reply

really appriciate your insight. Would definitely be quoting this right up @ a training.

Graham Cowle   |   14 August 2012   |   Reply

Thank you for your article. Rules and laws can have a great expense to pay. It made me think of something people put down to Benjamin Thomas Jefferson 3rd Us President. He was actually quoting from somewhere else;
“Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.” I suppose it is thinking about the impact and consequence of what we put in place. Not to have the impact against our principles.

Susan Mazza   |   20 August 2012   |   Reply

Thanks so much or sharing that quote Graham. It really captures the essence of the point of this article.

Karin Hurt   |   17 August 2012   |   Reply

I find that teaching newer leaders to operate from more of a principle-centered foundation is vital and yet can be very challenging. Some wrestle with “consistency ” and explaining their decisions…. and yet, to be a great leader it’s one of the most critical skills to master.

Susan Mazza   |   20 August 2012   |   Reply

You bring up a great point Karin. Principles may be simple, but they are far from simplistic to live and lead from. Our every day choices help us to distinguish our principles for ourselves and others. Even when we are being true to the principles we choose and espouse, it is not always easy for others to perceive that we are. Leaders must learn to deal with a world based on interpretation. It is much easier to say “because that’s the rule”, but in doing so we abdicate our leadership.