Rules get a bad rap. Too many of us think they are the handiwork of fascists who want to take away all of our fun. When I look at the catastrophe that has been created by the financial crisis, or hear the black box recording of a plane crash that didn’t have to happen, or even when I see a less devastating, but still unnecessary five bike pile up on my recreation trail, I start to sing the praises of rules. Not just any rules, but the rules of the road. When you follow the rules of the road you don’t need scores of new regulation, or super-duper grand pooh-bah chief regulators created to watch over us all. When you don’t follow them– that is what you end up with.
The rules of the road are the tried and true shortcuts that our forefathers and foremothers wrote for us, hoping we wouldn’t make the same mistakes they made. When I learned to sail, the first thing the instructor gave me was a handout with the rules of the road. You learn that motorboats yield to boats under sail. To avoid collision, you don’t try to out run another boat; you aim for their stern (back of the boat). I found this trick works beautifully for running or cycling too.
One of my favorite rules of the road was written in 1776 by Thomas Paine in his book, The American Crisis Vol. 1. “Lead, follow or get out of the way.” He may not have realized he was creating a bumper sticker, but it is great advice for for 18-wheelers and maserati-wannabees flying on I-95. Following Paine’s advice can make for a much more pleasant commute if you follow it. BTW, there is no shame in “getting out of the way.” It doesn’t make you a pansy; it just puts you in the right flow for that particular day on the road.
President Reagan said trust but verify. That is a great rule of the road for foreign policy but it should have been the mantra in financial services. A system of no checks and no balances evolved earlier this decade because no one wanted to lose a commission because of verification. Mortgages got approved; toxic derivative products got stamped with ‘Triple A’ ratings, all to get the commission or the fee. If my company doesn’t do it another will, was the justification. That is a weak argument and we have had hell to pay and will continue to have hell to pay because of it.
Rules may seem old fashioned or preachy. I argue that rules of the road are less about restricting behavior, than limiting collateral damage. The rules of the road are empowering if we collectively demand they be followed. When walkers stay to the right of joggers and joggers stay to the right of cyclists, and cyclists stay right of cars, we can all share the road together. It can work. The key is when there is a renegade, and there will be, to show the maturity and the patience to know you don’t have to break the rules, just because they did. That maturity was missing in the c-suites on Wall Street. I will leave you with one more quote from Paine. “Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle is always a vice.” –Mary Caraccioli