Leadership and Policies

“My policy is to have no policies.” – Abraham Lincoln

I recently saw the film “Lincoln” (excellent, by the way), and was once again reminded that there is much we can learn from Honest Abe, not the least of which is his perspective on policies. Policies have a way of squeezing out judgment, creativity, thought, and all sorts of other things that are required for success in life and business.

To be clear, I fully grasp the reality that some policies are needed. For example, policies against discrimination, harassment, and all things illegal/unethical are of paramount importance. These policies are more like laws, as they govern fundamental behaviors and human interaction. I’m not arguing against these types of policies. I am, however, arguing against policies that obviate the use of good business judgment.

First, let’s consider the origin of the word “policy.”

Policy ultimately stems from the Greek word “polis,” which means “city” or “body of citizens.” Citizens are governed by “politicians,” who dictate “policy,” which is enforced by “police.”  I’m not sure about you, but I don’t want to work anywhere that feels like politicians are dictating policy governed by the “policy police.” Unfortunately, I am describing most companies!

Simply put, excess policy stifles creativity, original thought, and judgment. I prefer guidelines to policies, as the latter tends to disengage otherwise useful brains.

Policies vs. Guidelines

The best way to deal with the notion of abandoning policies is to instead issue guidelines, and ensure that your team fully appreciates the difference between the two.

Policies are hard and fast rules, never to be broken. If you don’t think that policies are interpreted this way by your organization, you are severely out of touch. Policy-laden organizations tend to produce automatons. Think: anytime you go to the DMV to get your license renewed, or worse yet…when you need something that deviates even the slightest bit from protocol. This is when the blood pressure tends to rise. Policies achieve compliance (rather than commitment), often to the detriment of the business.

Guidelines, accompanied by real empowerment to make good decisions, achieve commitment (rather than compliance)…to doing what’s right, rather than doing things right. Guidelines are best practices and roadmaps for how to deal with familiar situations, but they are not hard and fast rules. For many leaders, this is a scary notion. How do you get people to do what they’re supposed to without hard and fast rules? Easy – you hire the right people, and then inspire and empower them to gain their commitment to doing what’s right on behalf of the business and its customers. The payoff for this is huge!

Get Courageous

It is quite natural for businesses to over-adopt policies as they grow, as there are plenty of reasons to take this path (and plenty of people who LOVE to author policy). The issue is that policies become a brick wall for too many people, with no way over or around. Nowhere are policies more dangerous than when they get in the way of moving swiftly, doing the right thing, and (especially) meeting your customers’ needs.  If you take nothing else from this post, take the following three Courageous Leadership tips:

1 – Challenge every rule and policy you encounter. This doesn’t mean all rules have to change, but understand that rules and policies tend to become obsolete as the business environment changes. When you find a rule that needs to be broken, break it publicly for all to see!

2 – Ask people why they are making certain decisions. This is a simple test. If the answer even slightly resembles, “because that’s what I was told to do,” or, “because that’s policy,” you have some work to do. The answer to this question should always resemble this – “because I felt it was the best decision for our business and our customers.”

3 – Listen to your gut. What I mean by this is simple – we all have experience, instincts, and judgment. We typically feel it in our gut when we make suboptimal decisions based on policy. When you have this feeling, abide by it, rather than policy. If you are leading people, empower them to do the same.

Remember this – courageous leaders never hide behind policy. Not Lincoln, not Grant, not me, and hopefully not you. If you catch yourself or your team making business decisions based on policy alone, you have a serious problem on your hands. The best leaders empower their teams to use good business judgment to make good decisions – for the business, and especially for their customers.

Lead. Courageously.

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  • kathleenklehr

    I have to say, Doug — I loved this piece. Guidelines allow us  to have the opportunity to evaluate, use our judgement, draw on life experience, etc., to determine in a particular situation, “Is this right for me, for us, for our team?” I come to an understanding in my own way. Policies want things black and white. There’s alot of gray out here.

    •  There is a lot of gray, indeed. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Kathleen!

  • Monica Warren

    Well, well, well.  I had this same conversation with someone I work with not too long ago.  Thank you for sharing your thoughts – great stuff!  I can use some of this the next time I am empowering someone to make decisions outside of the black and white and encourage them to “listen to their gut” or as I say it, “follow your passion and think outside of “your” box”.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Monica. I am delighted to see that you are challenging those around you free themselves from policy and engage their brains to do what they are there for – to think! I encourage you to continue challenging – even those who do not report to you. We all need all the help we can get. Thanks again!


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