Humanizing the Rule Book

by Andy Wood on July 20, 2010

in Leadership, Life Currency, LV Cycle, Protecting Your Investment, Tense Truths

Your most trusted employee visits your email inbox with a request for a meeting.  When you find the time to get together, he discloses to you that he has a substance abuse problem that requires in-house treatment.  Upon further review, you discover that his abuse took place on more than one occasion while on the job – a fireable offense.  This is his first sign of trouble.  What do you do?

Your teenage daughter is at a friend’s house for a sleepover; you know the friend and are at least familiar with the friend’s parents.  You’re awakened at 1:20 a.m. by your daughter asking you to bail her out of jail.  The charge:  drunk driving.  This is the second time you have caught her drinking, but the first time you have had any evidence of drinking and driving.  How do you respond?

Your youth pastor has been rumored or accused of inappropriate relationships with girls in his youth groups – one former, one current – which he vehemently denies.  He explains that he was just showing Christian concern for someone who had been abused or hurt in the past, and his kindness was misinterpreted.  Nevertheless, Scripture is clear that there shouldn’t even be a hint of immorality or impurity among God’s people, and particularly leaders.  The youth pastor is very popular among the students, but has his critics among your adults.  Keeping him could leave you liable to a lawsuit or public accusation; firing him could decimate your youth group.  What do you do?

Eve Was the First Legalist

Ever since God first said, “Don’t do that or you’ll die,” we have had a tension in dealing with the rule book.

Back in Eden, here’s what God originally said:

“You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17).

Here was Eve’s interpretation to the serpent (quite possibly relayed through Adam):

“We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die'” (Genesis 3:2-3).

Interesting little add-on.  Here’s the way it works.

  • I will die if I eat from that tree.
  • I want to stay far away from dying.
  • I can’t eat it if I don’t touch it first.
  • I’ll make a rule that I can’t touch it.  That way I won’t eat it, and won’t die.
  • God said, you must not touch it.

That would be great if the added rule actually empowered them to obey it.  Unfortunately, it didn’t then, and doesn’t now.  They ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Was God surprised?  No.

Did they die?  Yes.  Instantly spiritually; nearly 900 years later physically.

Rules Exist for a Reason

Regardless of the form, rules exist for a reason.  Whether it’s a law, a code of ethics, or Daddy’s rules for driving the family car, the rulebook was written in ways that should offer protection, guidance in making decisions, and a clearer path to success or safety.  The problem comes when somebody breaks the rules (and somebody will inevitably break the rules).

Seems cut and dried… you play, you pay.

Fire their butt.

Send ‘em back across the border.

Nuke ‘em.

Leave them in jail to think about it.

Hear me: Maybe that is what the ultimate decision should be.  But before you throw the book at somebody, it may be wise to remember that it’s a pretty big book.  And there are often other things in “the book” besides dealing with that particular issue.

Four Guidelines

Christian British ethicist and consult David Murray suggests what he calls “Four ‘C’s’ for humanizing the rule book.  Mostly these are things to slow down and consider when you’re in a position of leadership or authority and are facing a situation involving potential discipline.

1.  Consistency.

The whole idea of policies, codes, and laws and rules is to level the playing field for everybody.  And without a doubt, consistency is important and matters greatly when it comes to leadership.  In fact, as Murray points out, a lack of fairness or consistency may land you in court.

That said, disciplinary situations are rarely identical, and no rule book can predict every single contingency.  That’s why the legal system offers sentencing guidelines for judges to use, but also offers great leeway in using them.

One thing is critical, however, in credible leadership and parenting.  You absolutely must demonstrate consistency between your promises (threats) and your outcomes.  Otherwise your word means nothing.  If you aren’t prepared to deliver it, don’t promise it.  But if you do promise or threaten it, you’d better be ready to back up your word.

2.  Causes.

This is especially important when you notice a pattern of behavior – either multiple people with the same problem or one person with repeated instances.  Is there something unhealthy in the environment?  Does something in the family system or the organization’s ways of doing things contribute to the problem?  Dealing with this may not change the outcome, but it may help prevent future violations.

3.  Consequences.

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times:  “I believe in grace, but sin has consequences.”

Uh huh.  And guess what?  Consequences have consequences, too.  So before you decide to pull the trigger, using the rule book as your ammo, you need to ask who else will be affected by your decision.   And if your version of leadership leaves you as a helpless robot to the programming of the rule book, you’ve got a lot to learn about leadership.

4.  Care.

By all means, don’t reduce discipline to the point that it means nothing.  But remember also the Prime Directive:  Love your neighbor as yourself.

What is the loving thing to do in this circumstance?  Now just for the immediate, but for the long term.  If your organization blithely gushes that “people are our most important resource,” how will you prove that with somebody who has blown it?  If your child has violated your trust, how will you demonstrate a commitment, not just to raise a child, but to raise an adult?  If your employee has a substance abuse problem, is there a way you can invest in the future of the employee by offering recovery as part of a long-term disciplinary solution?

Looking at each of these guidelines may not change your disciplinary decisions at all.  But they will make you a wiser, stronger leader for having done it.  Anybody can hide behind policy.  It takes a leader to navigate an organization, a family, or a team through these moments of truth.

If all this sounds complicated, it’s because you’re dealing with people, and they are complicated.  Just another reminder that leadership in any dimension is not for cowards.

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