An Officer’s Guide to Breaking the Rules

An Officer’s Guide to Breaking the Rules

Originally published in CCLKOW ProChat on 4 Apr 2016

“I always say that it’s about breaking the rules. But the secret of breaking rules in a way that works is understanding what the rules are in the first place.”   – Rick Wakeman

As military officers we are surrounded by rules, regulations, policy, protocols, doctrine, instructions, orders (both standing and ephemeral) and, indeed, laws – all of which we are supposed to adhere to[1].  As part of a disciplined fighting Service it is incumbent upon each of us not only to know what all of these constraints on our behaviour are, but to apply them in the leadership of our teams.  They enable the complex organisations of the military to be managed (more or less) effectively.  They allow for, inter alia, the regimentation of affairs, legal compliance, fairness to our people, good order, coherence and consistency across (and between) our Armed Services, interoperability and the safe conduct of our business[2].  In short they prevent chaos. For some years now the Royal Navy has been running a recruitment campaign with the strapline “Life without Limits”.  Personally, I think this is very strange as it is difficult to think of a more regulated lifestyle than a sailor at sea, especially on operations.  And yet, as commanders and leaders we are required to deal with real situations and apply our judgement to each set of circumstances to do what is right to achieve our Commander’s intent.  In my experience, this often means that the rules need to be broken (or at least reinterpreted) in order to achieve the aim.  In such circumstances how to we as commanders decide on the best course of action?

When exhorting his officers to seize the initiative and deliver success in spite of the strictures of bureaucracy, the outgoing First Sea Lord[3] frequently used the phrase “Be bold. Take risk. Fear nothing.”  This is the Nelsonian way.  But how do we judge which rules we ought to break and when?  When should we turn a ‘Nelsonian Eye[4]’ to our orders?  When should we obey them and inform our superior commander that we are unable to comply with his or her instructions?  The answer, as alluded to by Admiral Zambellas, is to take risk.  But risk is something very specific.  It is not a cavalier gamble, that is simply negligence; rather it is a careful analysis of the likelihood and impact of an adverse situation manifesting itself.  Once these are understood, mitigations should be devised and implemented to reduce both the likelihood and the impact of an undesirable outcome.  This must then be weighed carefully against the likelihood and benefits of success.  A sensible, balanced and defensible decision can then be taken.  Where this course of action contravenes the rules you, as the decision maker, need to take responsibility and reassure your subordinates that you are doing so.

Warrant Officers and Senior Ratings[5] have (in general) spent their careers implementing the rules to manage the delivery of the functions for which they are responsible. Taking them into a situation where the hard and fast rules that they are used to working with become temporarily negotiable and ambiguous requires careful leadership and clarity of explanation.  They need to trust you, and you need to be worthy of that trust, because if it goes bad you need to have the moral courage to take responsibility. But good decisions can go bad, just as bad decisions can go well.  You need to make sure that the decision is defensible.  If it is not, then it probably isn’t the right decision in any case and you need to think again.  Asking yourself the question “how would I explain this at the Court Martial?” isn’t about covering your back, it’s about calibrating your moral compass in opaque circumstances.

When at sea as Head of the Weapon Engineering Department in one of the Royal Navy’s Anti-Submarine Warfare frigates I developed a helpful mental and linguistic model to aid me with this process.  By agreement, it also formed the basic structure of the conversations about such issues that I would have with the Commanding Officer (CO).  The CO hated being told that I couldn’t do something when he knew full well that I could but that the rules didn’t allow it.  So I agreed that we would discuss such things in the following terms: Could – Should – Would.  In the first instance I would explain what could be done, what was physically possible given the resources at our disposal, without any of the constraints of the rules.  I would then explain what should be done to be compliant with the rules, regulations, policy, etc.  Finally, we would have a conversation about what we would do, under what circumstances and when the operational imperative would justify setting aside certain rules in order to achieve the intent.  It worked.  I never told him something was impossible when it wasn’t, but we also (frequently) made defensible risk-based decisions to break the rules when the circumstances justified it. He’s a Rear Admiral now and I was promoted from that job too, so we must have been doing something right.  Maybe we were just lucky but experience suggests that taking a deliberate and structured approach to thinking about and taking risk may have helped.

@FightingSailor                                                                                March 2016


Recommended further reading:

 Gardner, Dan. Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear. Virgin Books (London: 2009).

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets (2nd Ed). Penguin Books (London: 2007).


[1] I will group all of these under the term ‘rules’ for convenience in this article

[2] Or at least as safe as possible.  The enemy will try to do us harm, we really ought not to do it to ourselves.

[3] Admiral Sir George Zambellas, Head of the Royal Navy.

[4] At the battle of Copenhagen in 1801 Admiral Sir Hyde Parker sent a signal to the Fleet ordering them to withdraw. Nelson pressed his telescope to his blind eye and said “I really do not see the signal”. He pressed home his attack and secured victory for the British. – Forrester, C.S., Nelson. Chatham Publishing (London: 1929) and Hibbert, Christopher. Nelson A Personal History. (Basic Books: 1994).

[5] Enlisted sailors, Petty Officer and above.

One thought on “An Officer’s Guide to Breaking the Rules

  1. Pingback: August 2020 | Chris Swan's Weblog

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