Principles vs Rules


I live by a set of principles. They make things easier for me. They help me be decisive.


I have a set of personal principles (10 Guiding Principles for Purposeful Professional Leadership) and a set of principles for leading others (Principles of Agile Leadership). They have been formed by my own understanding of the world and my experiences (so far) and are grounded in my values and beliefs. I think of principles as curated wisdom. When shared, they let others know what I stand for and what they can count on from me. In fact, one of my core principles for Agile Leadership is "Be flexible, but never with your principles."


Rules, on the other hand, I find confining and disempowering. (Don’t you?) Not surprisingly, one of my personal principles is "Don't settle for being an excellent sheep:  Approach each situation with intention. Respond from choice and not from obligation."  So, what is the difference?


Principles and rules both determine the way someone acts and behaves, but they are quite different. Principles are ideas that govern someone's thoughts and behavior. They are an internal measure of conduct crafted by a set of values and beliefs. They guide you to do what you know to be right or correct. Importantly, the one that holds you accountable to your principles is YOU. Rules, on the other hand, are imposed on you from the outside and must be obeyed at risk of a penalty. They prohibit the possibility of personalized adaptation or exception. 


So, a principle imposed on another person is no longer a principle — it is a rule!

People are generally motivated by autonomy. Few like being told what to do. Rules create stress and a “because I said so” mentality. Working under principles, on the other hand, feels natural and liberating.


When a community — be it a team, family, business, or society — co-creates and establishes a set of trusted principles, rules are not necessary. Each participant has the freedom to act, behave, respond, and decide in a way that meets certain shared standards.


But when principles are not clear, rules will appear!

Echoing the wisdom of Francesco Saez of Facile Things, and based on my own experience, you should invest the time to establish your own set of principles — the values and standards that govern your work and life. Share them with others who need to know and influence positive change by your own example.


Can principles change over time? For life-longer learners, the answer is OF COURSE! Refine them periodically as your experiences and understanding of the world deepen.


But I will say it again — be flexible but never with your current set of working principles!

"To create something worthwhile, base it on principles and forget the rules."

- Francesco Saez, Facile Things


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