While great leaders are disruptive, good ones play by the rules. Great leaders break existing rules and set new ones. Leaders move from being good to becoming great when they depart from the norm and try a new path. Leaders are primarily called to do one of two things; either lead an organization or nation out of a difficulty into stability or lead it to greater prosperity in times of stability. Doing either requires the disruption of the norm. It requires breaking existing rules and setting new ones. Leaders are not called to maintain status quo because status quo speaks of stagnation and limitation. Maintaining status quo means doing the familiar. Unless new things are done, new results cannot be achieved. Leadership is about effecting changes and this begins with knocking the bottom off practices and beliefs that limit growth and expansion.
Rules set boundaries. Rules define the permissible. Chaos becomes inevitable in any nation or organization without guiding rules. Hence, nations and organizations have sanctions for infractions. However, the downside of rules is that they place a limit on what is achievable. Those who follow set rules are contained and confined by them. They can’t operate outside such rules without consequences. Great leaders don’t break rules out of disrespect or disdain; they do so to improve on their results. When great leaders break existing rules they do so to take the people they lead on a journey which they had hitherto not experienced.
When leaders break rules, they set people free. When leaders break rules, they bring the impossible within reach. When leaders break rules, they set others’ imagination afire. For over 4,000 years, it was believed that no human being could complete the one-mile race under four minutes. Many had taken tiger milk and other performance-enhancing drinks and food to achieve the feat but the harder they tried, the more they failed. But Roger Bannister, then an Oxford University medical student, broke that rule on May 6, 1954, finishing the race in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. However, less than two months after Bannister achieved that feat, two other people were able to complete the race in less than four minutes. Since then, thousands of athletes have been able to complete the race in less than four minutes. This was something nearly everyone had believed was impossible for thousands of years. When leaders break records, they set others free.
Leaders often have to choose between maintaining the status quo and charting new paths. Those who prefer conformance to disruption choose to maintain status quo and end up being good while those who chart new paths become great. The unfortunate thing, however, is that more often than not, good leaders are forgotten as soon as they leave office. Why? While everyone loves conformists, no one really holds them in high esteem because they never make any real mark. Only those who break rules exceed boundaries and make lasting marks.
Michael Dell’s stride
Michael Dell, founder and CEO of Dell Technologies, worked his way to greatness and huge fortunes by breaking the standard rule of selling. When Dell incorporated his company in 1984, selling directly to end users by manufacturers was unthinkable; everyone who manufactured anything had to channel it through wholesalers and retailers. But Dell refused to travel that route. He broke the rule of selling through third parties. Instead of going through vendors he sold his upgrade kits for personal computers directly to end users. This made the prices of his products competitive. So successful was Dell’s company at this that when he was barely 27 years of age in 1992, he emerged as the youngest person to be the CEO of a company ranked in Fortune 500, the best 500 companies in the world. His was one of the first companies to sell computers via the web in 1996. This became the company’s greatest propeller to grand prosperity as the company was able to record $1 million in sales per day from dell.com. In 2001, Dell Inc. became the largest personal computer maker, with a market share of 12.8 per cent, beating Compaq, which hitherto had been world’s number one computer maker.
What was Dell’s magic wand? It was breaking the rule. It was disrupting the status quo. Everyone who had come ahead of him in business had followed the rule of selling through third parties but he did not do that. Unlike Mack Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, Dell, who is worth $23.5billion, did not attain greatness through his invention but by breaking existing marketing rules.
How leaders break rules
Leaders break rules by doing a number of things. Here are some of them.
Go against the grain
To break existing rules with a view to effecting a positive change requires going against the normal way of doing things.
When Abubakar Musa Argungu was appointed the Acting Postmaster General of the Federation in 1999, the Nigeria Postal Service (NIPOST) had almost become moribund. It had earned a reputation as a government department where nothing worked. In those days, letters took months to get delivered and parcels got missing regularly. Nigerians hated to have anything to do with NIPOST and those who could afford it resorted to patronizing courier companies despite the higher fees being charged.
However, not long after Argungu, an accountant, took over the management of the outfit, he turned around the organization. NIPOST started delivering mails within 72 hours. This turned out not be a fluke as it was sustained throughout the time he was in charge. To every nook and cranny of the country, mails and parcels were delivered within 72 hours.
Speaking on how he turned around the organization, Argungu said it was possible because he went against the grain in NIPOST. He explained that the system he had inherited was that mails would be allowed to gather at post offices until they got to a particular level before being moved. He added that since this was discretionary, it was difficult for the management to monitor. He also explained that this style was adopted by the management to save cost.
He said he was in his office one day and felt so burdened by the complaints he daily got about how bad the services of NIPOST had become that he asked himself if there was no other way the mails could be moved. He said while he was still mulling over that, the thought came to him that why should the delivery of mails be delayed? “I thought to myself that if it was not important why would anyone send a mail to another person? I said by delaying the delivery we were defeating the purpose the mails were meant to serve. At that point, I decided that we would no longer delay moving mails. I decided that the country would be divided into zones and mails would move everyday from each zone to other zones. Of course, we had the initial challenge of getting vehicles but we overcame that and that was how the National Mail Route Network started. This system has been copied by other African nations.”
Argungu broke the rule of allowing mails to pile up by going against the grain.
Question the status quo
The status quo is what got the organization to its present level. The status quo represents the best the organization can get unless it does something new. One of the things great leaders do that help them to achieve much is that they keep asking the question, “Is this the best we can be?” the answer is always no because no matter how good a process is it can always get better. Similarly, no matter how successful an organization is it can achieve more success. The next question is “If this is not the best we can be, what can we do to get better than we currently are?” Asking the question opens the door for greater opportunities
As the saying goes, nothing gets turned up until someone turns it up. Change will not occur until something happens to what currently is. In that wise, a leader who wants to effect a change must consistently challenge the status quo. There is nothing so bad that it cannot be changed. To throw up the hands because of a seemingly overwhelming challenge is to shortchange humanity. There is absolutely no problem that the human mind cannot find solution to. Just consider this; man has been able to conquer the moon, the ocean and the desert. Similarly, man has been able to tame the wildest of beasts. So, what is the problem that the human mind cannot proffer solutions to? What is required is channeling the thinking appropriately and the solution will come to the fore.
In the same vein, there is nothing that is so good to the extent that it does not require further improvement. To think that a particular thing can no longer be improved upon is to suffer delusion grandeur. Everything can be improved. Nothing ever gets to the point that it can no longer be improved. When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1875, it looked like the ultimate in communication. But if the man were to come back to life now he would doubt that Apple iPhone 8 Plus is a derivative of his invention. The creative spirit will not thrive and innovation will not flourish without the courage to break the rules. The known is the enemy of the possible. Go beyond the known, thirst for the possible. Challenge your operational process, break your marketing rule and get into a new realm of possibilities.
Elevate your thinking
One of the debts a leader owes both himself and the organization he leads is to consistently improve his thinking. A leader is not better than the thoughts he allows in himself. If a leader’s thinking does not get better, neither he nor his organization gets better. So to have a new experience or to attain a height his organization has never attained, the leader has to elevate his thinking, he has to entertain new thoughts and contemplate new things. If he does not do that, he will remain the same and his organization will not go beyond the limits set by others.
Every leader should set aside at least 30 minutes daily just to allow his mind to travel without any hindrance into the future. When the mind is unfettered, impossibility loses its invincibility.
Never say no to a new idea
To break rules, a leader must never say no to a new idea. Most new ideas appear stupid and unattainable at the outset. So, shallow people discard them. But the deep take another look at such idea, turn it around a number of times until they see what is buried in its belly. It will be the undoing of any leader to condemn an idea or confine it to the trash can because he does not understand it.
When the founders of Twitter came up with the idea of a micro-blogging platform that would change the world, many people did not only think it was a stupid idea, they also had the same opinion about its sponsors. But now, everyone agrees that Twitter is a phenomenon.
According to Biz Stone, one of the co-founders of Twitter, “When we were working on the idea, a lot of people thought it sounded stupid. Even some of our engineers weren’t interested.” But the sponsors were undaunted and eventually they proved the cynics wrong. Today, not only have Twitter founders changed the world, they have also transformed their own lives as they ceaselessly mint money.
Fix it though it isn’t broken
A common American expression is “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” which is a warning not to tamper with a process that works well. It is also the rationale behind the saying, “Don’t change a winning team.” While there is so much sense in the sayings, they are premised on the belief that others will not get better than they currently are and that the organization or the group that has an edge will continue to hold the ace. To remain on top or to get better every time, you do not have to wait until something gets broken before paying attention to it. Waiting till it gets broken before fixing it may be waiting till it is too late. While the leader may not change a winning team in its entirety, he has to keep tweaking it to ensure it continues to produce optimum result because at the end of the day, it is the result that matters. Unfortunately in leadership, past results do not count much, it is the current result that matters most. Once a leader fails to produce the desired result, his past feats lose their appeal.
To make a mark, every leader must determine the rule he has to break.