Leadership Blog

Blessed Are the Rule Breakers

In an article by William R. Miller, clinical psychologist, on motivational interviewing he commented that fundamentalism happens in religion as well as in management.  “Jesus, he said, “ was famously criticized for feeding the hungry and healing the sick on a Saturday, a technical violation of the rule that no work should be done on the Sabbath.”

It raises an important point about our fixation with four step plans and grids based on four quadrants.  His challenge is that strict obedience to such rules may be missing the point.  For example, to stick with Jesus for a moment longer, when he was reportedly asked “What is the most important rule?” he answered that it is to love God and to love others as you love yourself, which sums up all the other rules.

The point is that what begins as a compassionate description can become “set in stone” as dogma, even though it usually happens with the best of intentions.  That is why, when we come up against “the rules” for something like coaching, it begins to feel like literalism or fundamentalism at play.  “You must use the GROW model and don't leave out any of the stages”, the trainer might say.

Often this happens in the form of oversimplification: all you have to do is ask these five questions, or fill in these four boxes, and you’re doing it right.  It happens when we try to reduce complex skills e.g. coaching to a formula or series of steps to follow.  

Think of all the session manuals that require coaches complete an action plan - a change plan - at the end of the session.  The implication is that we must fill in a change plan whether or not the client is ready.  And that’s the heart of the problem with literalism – blindly following the rules.

Miler points out that there is psycholinguistic analyses that shows that with clients who are not yet ready to commit to change, you are likely undo all the motivational progress gained towards change by forcing them to an unfelt commitment to change.  Not exactly what you would want.  The problem?  Following the model blindly, regardless of sensitivity and situation.

This literalism also comes in the form of “must” and “always” rules, for example, and depending on the model:

  • Never ask closed questions
  • Never offer information or advice without permission
  • Always do the four processes in this order
  • Never ask three questions in a row
  • Avoid using “why?”
  • …and so on.

Perhaps this is rooted in the rational mind and its strong desire to simplify and code.  And yet, it does not capture the whole picture by any means.  As others have observed, there seems to be an inverse relationship between ease of measurement and importance.  That which may be most important in coaching is not simple to measure.  

As Georges Braque (a 20th Century French painter) said, “The only thing that matters in art is the part that can’t be explained”.

Maybe concrete behaviour counts can be coded reliably, but they offer only a partial picture.  The temptation is to take descriptive measures and make them prescriptive. This creates a rule-governed approach rather than a method that responds flexibly to the client’s immediate experience. It also tends to stagnate, harden and restrict practice.

You can just hear new coaches, still in learning mode, being criticised for violating model rules.   Yet listen to coaching sessions with a list of rules in front of you, and you will hear experienced coaches breaking every one of them as they respond responsibly to the situations they face.

Are these errors? From a rule-governed perspective they are indeed violations and mistakes. The ideal within a rule-governed perspective is error free performance, as in Olympic gymnastics.  

Miller suggest that it is better to think of the concept of telos, often translated as “perfect,” which actually implies maturation rather than being free from flaws.  It’s common definition refers to the end goals.  A bit like Covey’s “start with the end in mind”.  What matters here is that the means to the end goal is somehow open and flexible.

Specific guidelines can be helpful in learning a complex and automated skill such as driving a car, but over time the specifics fade into an enjoyable process and the objective of arriving safely at a destination.  A reminder now and then doesn’t hurt (“use your indicator to signal a turn”), but skill is more than the sum of component rules.  It involves flexibility, responding to the immediate situation, and remembering where you’re going.

Drawing on an example from coding research into motivational interviewing, and from other prior research, we know that a lot of “confronting” is linked to poor outcomes.  Yet within skillful motivational interviews, there are observed examples of the “confront” response being associated with better client engagement.  It is true that these occurrences are infrequent and success is situation specific but it illustrates the point. 

It is worth noting what constitutes a “confront” is directly contradicting or disagreeing with your client.  Thus if a client says, “I don’t think I can do it,” and the coach responds, “Sure you can,” that is coded as a confront. In coaching it might be termed “challenging limiting beliefs”.

Coaching, like motivational interviewing, is a complex skill, or a set of skills. Excellence in coaching practice is a bit like proficiency in a sport or with a musical instrument.  We know it when we see or hear it, yet reliable rating of that overall quality is elusive.  What is clear is that it is not adequately captured in compliance to behavioural rules.   In motivational terms, when “flow” is achieved, it usually implies a heady mix of challenge, change and skills combined in a way that moves beyond the edge of current thinking or rules.

Guidelines may be helpful when setting out to learn.  It is how most people develop some level of proficiency over time.  However brilliance comes from those who just seem to recognise the underlying skills, learn it quickly and move beyond - certainly not by adhering inflexibly to rules.  As Jesus may say, “Blessed are the rule breakers”.


How Top US Government Leaders Define Leadership

During the past several years, Tom Fox of the US Center for Government Leadership has asked a number of US Cabinet Secretaries and other top Obama administration officials about their leadership philosophies and styles, and the lessons they have learned from managing a large workforce.  He recently shared this with the Washington Post as follows.

They might offer current and aspiring leaders a few important tips about focusing on the mission, setting expectations and engaging more meaningfully with employees.

When asked about his leadership and management philosophy, Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez said, “Whether you’re a first-line supervisor or the head of an entire agency, you should be asking career staffers: What do you think?”

Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker said “the biggest priority in any leader's job is to put together a team and really empower the team. Another thing I've been trying to do is provide a culture where people are proud to work, feel appreciated and understand the mission.”

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy noted “my goal is to make sure that we set clear expectations. I’m a big believer in keeping my eye on where we want to go, but really listening to people about the best way to get there. It’s important to engage people so that when you’re asking your people to do something, they know why and they know that they are capable of doing what you’re asking them to do.”

Julián Castro, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, described his leadership style as "a very close-to-the-ground approach. I think of myself as a 'man in the crowd' type of leader, in the sense of being close to employees, getting a sense from them of the challenges and the opportunities that we have and what we need to do to be better. I’ve made a point of spending a lot of time walking the building at HUD and listening to employees. I also have been going to our regional and field offices.”

On surfacing ideas and problems at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Secretary Tom Vilsack said, “A way of showing respect to employees is making myself available to try to answer questions they have. It gives me a chance to educate, but it also gives me a chance to be educated. If I don’t make myself available and I don’t listen carefully, something may go unattended and the result is that you get employees who are disconnected from either leadership or the goals of the leadership.”

When asked about her leadership principle, Maria Contreras-Sweet, Administrator of the Small Business Administration, said: “Leadership is about making sure that others are resourced and able to accomplish what they need to accomplish.”

Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, noted that the best leadership advice he has received during his career is “lead by example and set a vision that people can understand if you want them to follow and help you to fulfill your mission. Do not be afraid to hire the best people and, once you get them, do not micromanage them. Give them a vision and a mandate and get out of their way. Never stop listening and learning no matter how high you get in the food chain. Always be fair and consistent in the principles that guide your decisions, because there will be people who disagree. If you are consistent, they will at least respect you when you make your decisions.”

Victor Mendez, former Administrator of the Federal Highway Administration and now deputy secretary of Transportation, has learned from different bosses that “you must listen to what other people are telling you. There's a lot of intelligence and experience within our work environment, and we should always listen to that kind of experience. At the end of the day, people really appreciate when you listen to their perspective. You discover new ideas. It also doesn't mean that you always agree. And just because you're the administrator doesn't mean that you have all the answers. It does mean that I have a perspective and opinion, but have to believe that solutions get better when you listen to other people.”

Former astronaut and now Director of NASA's Johnson Space Center, Ellen Ochoa said: “Some of my colleagues in the astronaut office were Marines, and they would tell me that in the Marines they had two goals: accomplish the mission and take care of your people. I find myself coming back to that because I think it's a great thing to remember. It boils everything down to two straightforward and important goals. I'm trying to make sure that the people here have the skills and the infrastructure that are going to allow us to accomplish our mission of advancing human space exploration. It's partly about making sure we're safe and successful, but it's also that my center is prepared to carry out that mission for many years into the future.”


What Makes Good Government Leaders

We believe many of the comments that follow apply also in the UK and Ireland.  They are from Terry Newell who was a US Air Force Officer and Dean of Faculty of the government's Federal Executive Institute. His main focus is on ethics and values-based leadership in government.  Here are some of his thoughts on government leadership in the US.  

Q: What are some of the challenges facing federal leaders?

 A: The biggest challenge is to rebuild trust inside government organizations and among those the government serves.  Last year, surveys recorded the lowest percentage ever — they found that only 13 percent say government can be trusted to do what is right always or most of the time. Government employee data shows that trust is also a problem within agencies.  If we don't rebuild trust, it’s hard to get a lot else done.

Q: What else do federal leaders need to concentrate on?

 A: Another major challenge is to turn the creativity of government workers loose. A lot of them are stifled by cumbersome processes and rules.  We’re also not keeping younger workers.  They don’t feel like they can exercise their talents and their passions.  Government needs to view some mistakes as the inevitable result of creative risk-taking.  In too many federal organizations, mistakes are treated as failures to be punished. That just discourages people from being creative.

Q: How can leaders rebuild trust and create cultures that welcome creativity and innovation?

 A: As a leader, you have to be trustworthy.  You’ve got to be a person of integrity.  People trust leaders when those leaders exemplify the behavior they want their followers to exercise.

Second, leaders build trust by allowing people to take risks. When you extend trust to people, they’re willing to try things, and that trust gets repaid with excellence.  A large part of fostering creativity is establishing a work environment that rewards things like collaboration, experimentation and learning.  Part of it is also giving people knowledge and skills in their professional field and encouraging them to learn in different or related areas that don't appear to be job-related.  Creativity often comes at the intersection of disciplines, not just within them.

We also need to take off some of the shackles that we put on government workers.  There’s too much micromanagement.

Q: Are federal leaders sufficiently prepared for their jobs?

A: Some are prepared, but a lot aren’t.  One reason is that some end up in leadership roles because they’re technical experts and that is the only way to promote them.  There’s also no structured preparation across the federal government to enter leadership roles. Some agencies have it, but others don’t.

If you are put in a senior management or executive job, you are in a position of authority but you're not necessarily a leader.  You can give orders, but that doesn’t mean you will have willing, creative and committed followers.  Being a leader means not relying solely on your authority to solve problems, it means fostering commitment and excitement among those you lead.  If you think you’re a leader and look behind you and no one’s there, you may just be in a position of authority.

Q: What should the government be doing to prepare the next generation of leaders?

 A: We have to start much earlier in people’s careers.  You don't have to become a supervisor to start learning about leadership.  Some of this learning involves formal training, but most leadership learning comes in the workplace, handling job assignments.

One of the things we could do is build mentoring and coaching into those assignments in a way that helps people from the earliest parts of their careers understand how to gain followers and influence people.  It would also help if supervisors, managers and executives were graded in how well they do in nurturing the next generation of leaders.  We have to do a better job at selecting people for leadership roles.

 Q: You say in your latest book that America needs government leaders who are not only good managers but who are statesmen. What does that mean?

 A. Leadership skills are important, but they can be used for ill as well as good.  Calvin Coolidge said that "character is the only secure foundation of the state." Without character — which includes humility, moral courage, passion for public service and honor — leaders become poisonous to their organizations.  A key aspect of what I call statesmanship is character, which is often missing from leadership models.




Page 1 of 70

On Leadership

Rose and Lawton (1999)
“Leadership...whatever disagreements there are about the precise definition about the term, it is indubitably about people and the extent to which they can be motivated to behave in particular ways.”

Useful Links

Leadership and Management Network
This website aims to help you achieve your business goals through building Management and Leadership capabilities.

John Adair Leadership & Management
Official website of Professor John Adair.


Restore Default Settings