3 Leadership Rules That Were Meant to Be Broken

UPDATED: May 22, 2023
PUBLISHED: February 25, 2017
3 Leadership Rules That Were Meant to Be Broken

As a leader, it can feel at times like we are trying to navigate in an environment of constantly changing circumstances and landscapes. It can feel disorienting and confusing.

Navigating new terrain often requires new tactics. But trying new approaches when it comes to leading people feels risky. What if we get it wrong? As a result, we tend to default to what we have always done. We fall back to old leadership rules we observed or were programmed with long ago.


“Rules are mostly made to be broken and are too often for the lazy to hide behind.” —General Douglas MacArthur


In my work with clients, I witness the harsh results of outdated leadership rules in an effort to understand and improve the engagement of their employees. Often with good intentions, these leaders are sabotaging their own efforts.

Related: 5 Things Successful Leaders Don’t Say

To help you not fall prey to these same mistakes, here are three leadership rules that are meant to be broken:

1.  Fake it until you make it.

I’m not sure who I first heard say this, but I’ve said it a few dozen times since then. In my early career as a copier sales guy, this sort of worked. It meant acting as if I knew what I was doing and showing confidence even when I was scared and unsure. When you are learning to make door-to-door cold calls, this is pretty valuable advice. If I could fake it long enough, I might just sell a copier and start to develop real confidence.

But what’s good for early career sales is toxic for leadership. Employees today have lived much (if not all) of their lives in a world colored by spin and scandal. To survive, we’ve all learned to spot a phony from a mile away.

For that reason, trying to fake it as a leader is deadly. When you are unsteady or uncertain, it is far better to acknowledge it than trying to pretend. Showing vulnerability and a willingness to ask for help when you need it is a sign of strength that will create loyalty.

Frankly, you don’t really have a choice because even if you think you have everyone fooled, you don’t. The people you lead are onto you, even if they aren’t telling you. Be authentic. Be vulnerable. There is no faking that.

2. Only recognize top performers.

When I was growing up, I loved playing basketball. I spent countless hours playing and practicing. I was committed to playing and I played hard. There was only one problem: I wasn’t very good.

In the summers, I would attend basketball camps. At the end of each camp, the coaches would give out awards. I was never the highest scorer or leading rebounder. My stats never added up to much. Despite that, on two occasions I was given the “hustle” trophy. To this day, I’m more proud of those awards than any sales award I gained in my early sales career. They represented that despite my limited abilities, I had outworked everyone else on the floor with me. And my coaches valued my efforts.

It’s been a widely held management dogma for decades that the best way to fuel performance is to visibly recognize and reward the top performers—the idea being that others will be driven to become one. The problem, of course, is that the success of your organization rides on the effort of far more average performers.

Many of those average performers might be like me as a young basketball player—working really hard, but just not able or ready to produce exceptional results. They deserve to feel valued. If you only recognize top performers without acknowledging the hustle, you are losing loyalty and engagement every day.

3. Never be friends with the people you supervise (and I’m not talking about Facebook).

I can’t confirm this, but I think this rule probably came into existence during the golden age of right-sizing and downsizing. The thinking probably went something like, I probably shouldn’t get too attached to these people as a manager because there’s a good chance I’m going to have to do something horrible to them down the road. Maybe that made sense in some twisted sort of way during the era when the psychological contract of long-term employment was torn up and burned.

It’s a terrible rule to follow today. Employee engagement is the emotional and mental connection an individual feels with their work. And one of the keys to driving this connection is the relationship an employee has with their direct manager.

Friendship is defined as “a relationship of mutual affection between two or more people.” Our research shows that when employees feel cared about by their managers, they are significantly more likely to be engaged. I’m not suggesting that there shouldn’t be some boundaries in the manager-employee relationship, but if you treat your employees more like you treat your friends, you will be pleased with the results.

These are just a few of the leadership rules that should be broken. There are many others. When you come to one of those points where you are uncertain what to do next to lead your people across new terrain, ask them. If they believe you are willing to listen, they will help you find the way.

Related: 10 Habits of Ultra-Likeable Leaders

Jason Lauritsen is the director of client success at Quantum Workplace, an accomplished keynote speaker, and the author of Social Gravity: Harnessing the Natural Laws of Relationships. At Quantum Workplace, Jason is dedicated to providing every organization with quality engagement tools that guide their next step in making work better every day.