On Followship: Why “Breaking All the Rules!” Is Stupid

I breezed through the instructions while preparing some instant mashed potatoes the other day. With reckless disregard for the prescribed formula, because of course I knew how to do it better, I threw the mix in before the water was boiling to save time. Sadly, this actually ended up costing me time, because the cold white mush in my stewardship now took longer to cook, required more of my attention, and risked burning my pot.


“But wait!” my nascent adolescent mind cried out. “When the hero breaks the rules in the movies, everything always works out for him perfectly all the time!”

This was on my mind as I’d recently watched the movie “Pacific Rim,” a fantasy movie where sea monsters fight giant robots in a military organization where no one follows orders ever. I can’t recall how many times in the film the poor, exasperated robot commander (Idris Elba) watches his subordinates disobey him – with no consequences of any kind ever.

We saw an identical theme in this year’s “Star Trek Into Darkness,” where our hero Jim Kirk has risen to the rank of captain (!) by somehow disobeying every order he’s given. This is moronic for two reasons:

a) A major plot point of “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan” (which STID slavishly cribs from) is that Jim Kirk gets everyone in trouble – and several people killed –SPECIFICALLY BECAUSE HE IGNORES REGULATIONS:

b) Individuals excel in an organization by mastering its rules (IE the strictures developed based on the experience of antecedent leaders). A director who disobeys the studio will quickly find himself out of a job.

The hero who always breaks the rules is such a cliché at this point that it seems like yet another rule of Hollywood storytelling. And I’m not sure if it’s life imitating art or the other way around, but this foolishness pervades our society. In business, there’s this notion to “first, break all the rules.” In politics, candidates always want to position themselves as the rule-breaker, the rebel, the outsider, the maverick – while simultaneously trying to convince us we should put them in charge of our nuclear bombs and gazillions of dollars.

Maybe it’s because my Mormon upbringing makes me “prize belonging and unity over individuality and conflict every time,” but a puerile focus on rule-breaking has always struck me as arrogant and childish.

Yes, of course rules need to be broken sometimes. But only by someone who’s already mastered the rules and understands why they were created.  

In government, every rule on the books may not make sense today, but it made sense to someone when it was written. Anyone seeking to improve the status quo needs to understand the context of the past in planning for the future.

In music, jazz is a spirited expression of free-form improvisation … but only in the hands of a skilled expert, giving rise to the phrase: “You have to know the rules before you can break them.” Only someone with the discipline to follow the rules gains the expertise to understand when break them serves a higher purpose.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go get some more instant potatoes.