Last week, I shared a story that illustrated the tricky balance between rules and relationships. In an era of risk and regulation, placing faith in relationships and trust can feel unpredictable, and in a leadership job, sometimes a bit irresponsible. However, leading a people business means that, no matter how carefully and well we name our risks and set up measures to mitigate those risks, we will never have those risks entirely ‘managed.’ People and their behaviour are just not as easy to predict. Leading a business that centres on young people can be even more unpredictable.

Students talking quad

In October, we start planning Orientation Week for the next year. Our newly elected leadership team, all young people keen to ensure that the first week of college for our new residents is fun, welcoming and reassuring, will lead the week. I have friends in other businesses ask me incredulously when I mention this, ‘You mean you trust a 20-year old to do the right thing? Have you thought of the risks you are taking?’ The fact is I do, and I have. In my experience, training and high expectations of leaders mitigates much of your risks. It creates an open forum to discuss what might happen and why you might need to take precautions about certain events or behaviours instead of getting students to tick boxes on a risk compliance spreadsheet.

For most of my career, I have lived by the mantra, ‘rules are for relationships.’ Specifically, especially in cultures where personal agency and choice is so highly valued, very few people see rules as ‘for them.’ Rules seen this way are then regularly broken or worked around. In our college, I tell students that rules are in place so that their peers do not hate them! That is, rules that matter are most often linked to relationships, their nurture and health and their safety. Sometimes, when I look at a risk matrix or view our College Handbook with its carefully laid out rules, this view of rules can be hard to find.

People are risky, we humans don’t always conform and comply in real life the way we do on spreadsheets. People are hard to regulate. We can work hard on the relationships that influence behaviour, and we do, but in the end, personal choice and agency plays a crucial role in whether or not those relationships help people conform to the rules and regulations in place. 

Students walking college cres

I am not saying we don’t need to have fabulous and clear rules and regulations in place. I am not saying that mitigating risk is filling out check boxes, or trying to couch such an important task of leadership as something that is not about people. What I am trying to say, ever so inadequately, is that despite our best efforts to ‘manage’ risks through rules and regulations, ultimately relationships are more powerful in terms of getting the best behaviour out of people. If rules and regulations are then separated from relationships, they can fall into a fairly pointless compliance exercise rather than calling people to their best behaviour.