Do Leaders Have to Follow all the Rules?

September 4, 2007

Bob Rosner posed this question at the height of the controversy surrounding Paul Wolfowitz, the then president of the World Bank, when Mr. Wolfowitz engaged in workplace favoritism to the benefit his girl friend. Mr. Rosner concluded that in the case of organizational policies, the answer was a resounding, "Yes."

Employment lawyers would agree that following the rules is essential. Whether the rules are laws, regulations or company policies, the failure to follow them leads to legal claims.   However, the ethics of bending or breaking the rules is viewed differently among highly successful leaders. Even in Human Resource circles there is a debate about the need to follow the rules. Here are some quotes that show the varying attitudes of great leaders about the rules:

"The truth is that many people set rules to keep from making decisions. Not me. I don’t want to be a manager or a dictator. I want to be a leader—and leadership is ongoing, adjustable, flexible, and dynamic. As such, leaders have to maintain a certain amount of discretion."

 –Coach K  

 "Hell, there are no rules here, we are trying to accomplish something."

Thomas Alva Edison

"Life is too complicated not to be orderly."

Martha Stewart

"You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else."

Dianne Feinstein

"If I’d observed all the rules, I’d never have got anywhere."

Marilyn Monroe

"Integrity has no need of rules."

Albert Camus

"The rule book is only good for you when you go deer hunting and run out of toilet paper."

Billy Martin

"Murphy’s golden rule: whoever has the gold makes the rules."


The role of rules defines the culture of an organization. From the top to the bottom, the rules impact leadership selection, organizational development, and succession planning. I invite the HR community to critique the leadership skills of Paul Newman as demonstrated in this clip; particularly, his unique approach to the rules.