‘Adam – forget the rules.’
As a young Assistant Principal those three words were perpetually at the forefront of my brain as a 29 year old newly minted leader setting up my office and meeting staff for the first time.
They weren’t words I heard at some leadership conference or read in a book.
They were self imposed and became one of my leadership mantras.
I’m of course not advocating anything illegal – dangerous – or even something that may put your leadership position at risk.
Just forget the rules now and then.
I can vividly remember a conversation with one of my nine yard supervisors that helped to supervise the 1,200+ students at our Kindergarten through 5th grade school each afternoon during lunch time.
The logistics alone of feeding that many children within a ninety minute time span can warrant enough color coded spreadsheets to stifle even the most organized person.
And let me tell you, that first day of school during lunch was bonkers.
There had been some semblance of organization and a plan from the previous leadership team, and without knowing specifics I’m sure it was successful. But what went down on my first day – as the ‘leader of lunch’ – did not go down in an organized way.
Every 1st grader was lost and asking for their teacher.
The battery in my walkie-talkie went dead because I was brand new and didn’t think about charging it the day before.
When the 1st graders were leaving the cafeteria and 2nd grade was coming in, they did so through the same double doors.
At the same exact time.
Now try and picture me.
Twenty-nine years old, brand new slacks, crisp white shirt neatly ironed, brand new tie, shined up brown leather shoes, my walkie-talkie is dead, I didn’t yet have a whistle on my key ring and a few hundred seven and eight year olds are completely scattered like a line of ants that just had their column disrupted.
The louder I raised my voice to attempt any sort of organization, it seemed the hoard of hungry children would just increase their volume and disarray amongst themselves.
I made two leadership decisions that day.
The first was – to stop talking – stop directing – and let the crowd find where they needed to go.
Other than the new 1st grade students. All the others had already been through the cafeteria in preceding years and my hope was instinct and muscle memory would kick in and they would all find a place to sit and fill their tummies with whatever nourishment they had that day.
Sometimes you don’t need to try and solve a problem. Sometimes all you need to do is be quiet, take a few steps back, and let things unfold how they’ll unfold.
Once lunchtime was finally over (probably the longest ninety minutes of my life) I called an emergency meeting of the nine lunch supervisors we had that day.
We’d only briefly met two hours earlier just before lunch kicked off and I didn’t even know all their names.
“What happened at lunch today?”
“It was complete pandemonium.”
“We can’t keep doing this for the next 179 days of the school year.”
“Why does everyone enter and exit out of the same set of doors, at the same time?”
And then it happened. The ‘lead’ amongst the women raised her hand and offered a response.
“These are the rules Mr. Adam. We’ve been doing this for the past three years, they’re the rules. We’re just following the rules.”
It was then that I made my second leadership decisions for the day.
I looked all nine of them in the eyes.
“We’re going to forget the rules and create our own.”
We then assigned different people to role play as if they were a child. Having one grade level enter through one set of doors that opened directly onto the path they used when coming from their classrooms. Change was starting to happen and it looked promising.
Looking around the cafeteria there were four sets of double doors. It seemed completely obvious to me – so I asked the question.
“Why don’t we use a different set of doors to have kids exit through once they’ve been dismissed? It’s on the opposite side of the entrance doors and it leads directly onto the playground.”
Looks – whispers – and then someone spoke.
“We had that idea years ago but were told it wasn’t part of the established rules.”
Nothing needed to be said, this group of women who opened up yogurt containers on a daily basis – solved disputes on the playground – and knew a thing or two about kids, knew exactly what I was going to say.
“We can do whatever we want – and we’re going to forget the old rules and make up our own.”
And that’s exactly what we did.
The next 179 days of lunch weren’t always completely smooth, but each one was better than the last. And something else happened each day.
The nine fabulous ladies started solving other problems, both old and new.
Doesn’t make sense to have every single student go back to class after they eat to drop off their lunchbox before playing.
Let’s buy some cheap laundry baskets, have kids drop them in there, and have only two children go back to class each day to drop the entire basket off.
Having the teachers walk to the playground after lunch to pick up their classes was causing some problems. It takes up their lunch time and also eats into instructional minutes.
We assigned student line leaders to walk the classes back. It gave kids leadership opportunities and build good will among the teachers.
Application to Leadership
Now before you get excited forgetting all the rules, this idea does not apply to every leadership decision, or situation you’re going to be involved with. It’s important to be constantly weighing the risk of those decisions against any number of factors.
What’s been done in the past?
It’s always a smart decision to know the history of a rule before you go about trying to make a new one. Every problem has a solution and your ‘new’ solution may have already been tried.
Don’t give up on your idea, it may just need some tweaking or adjusting before it’s completely dialed in.
Will you get in trouble?
Or worse lose your job.
There are potentially some serious ramifications when forgetting the rules – and it’s imperative to complete those risk assessments against a more favorable outcome to your current situation.
Will anyone get hurt?
Are you breaking any laws?
Is this something you’d want spread across social media?
It’s admirable to believe in change so much that you’re willing to put yourself out there. Just stop and think about those risks. Sleep on your new idea. Talk with a few friends or colleagues who are confidential and can give you pragmatic input.
And above all else, make sure that you can live with and stand behind your decision. You’re a leader, you made a decision, and that means you have to stand behind what you did.
Hint : If your organization or community isn’t use to a ‘forget the rules’ kind of culture, start with small and lower impact decisions to warm them up. Choose your rules wisely and carefully – I’d rather have five small wins than one big disastrous failure and then you for sure won’t be able to tackle any of those big ones – your trust will be gone.
Pain points are a great place to start.
What type of coffee is available to employees.
Paperwork and the approval process for getting reimbursed.
The flow of kids through the cafeteria during lunch.
Pain points that cause friction and productivity with your people and within your organization is a great place to start forgetting the rules.
I can remember a time as the leader of a school and there were grumblings amongst the staff. It was taking an exorbitant amount of time for requests to be approved, in order for staff to get a substitute teacher so they could attend trainings or a conference off site.
Teachers would fill out the form, it then went to our school office manager, I would approve the form by signing my name, and then the request was approved.
This may seem absolutely ridiculous to you. Why would the Principal of a school need to approve a day off for training employees that was already approved by the district office.
That was the rule.
And instead of forgetting the rule because we couldn’t, I kind of sidestepped a part that made sense to me, while still abiding by the rules.
Instead of waiting for my signature, we bought a stamp of my signature and our amazing office manager could approve on my behalf.
It had already been approved by my supervisors, so why the heck should my staff be waiting on me.
No money was involved.
No purchase orders.
No passwords or confidential information.
Stamp my name and get on with your life. We didn’t forget or break the rule, we manipulated it into our favor.
If you always follow all the rules, you’re never going to solve real problems that weigh you and your organization down.
And dang it – if you always follow the rules, you’re never going to reach your full potential or that of those that you lead.
Don’t let small mundane problems keep you from doing the real work that you’re meant to be doing.
Don’t think outside of the box – get rid of the box.
I don’t want to be constrained by only being able to think inside or outside of the box. Break it down, put it in the recycle bin and do what you think is best for your organization.
You’re a leader for a reason, start acting like one.