During my tenure at IBM, we were reminded often by Lou Gerster to “manage by principle, not procedure”. Travelling back from Kuala Lumpur to Sydney recently, I had an experience which reminded me of the value of this leadership trait.

I’m a fan of budget airlines. For someone with retired parents in Malaysia on humble pensions, I feel a deep sense of gratitude hearing their social network and them speak about the exciting experiences travelling to exotic places on such airlines. As an entrepreneur working on a lean budget, I am a frequent patron. For international and business related travel, I value the ability to stretch my legs out and have space to work on my notebook. And so, forking out an extra $30.00 or so for one of the “premium” seats with “extra leg-room” is standard procedure for me for such trips.

On a previous occasion however, I had an experience where the “premium” seat I booked online in fact led to what turned out to be a “standard” seat. And so I was particularly diligent at my most recent flight to insist during check-in for confirmation that the seat I had booked and paid for, was indeed one with extra leg-room. Assured indeed that it was, you can imagine my disappointment on boarding to find that I had, yet again, been allocated a “standard” seat.

Given the plane was still boarding passengers, I decided to wait till everyone was seated before requesting a seat change. Spying quite a few “premium” seats vacant, I was sure this wouldn’t be an issue. As the pilot announced his customary welcome, I flagged down one of the flight attendants and politely explained my situation. Her retort was a Godzilla like scowl – “YOU should have told me before the doors were shut. I would have been able to verify with the ground staff that your request is genuine! Our policy is that we cannot allow passengers to change seats once the doors have closed. Let me come back to you when the plane has taken off.”

Unperturbed, as soon as the all clear was given for us to turn on our electronic devices, I powered up my laptop to retrieve my original travel invoice which would verify that the boarding pass, which clearly indicated that I had an “extra leg-room upgrade” was not something I might have forged. No Godzilla. I flagged down one of her colleagues. Explained my dilemma. Same scowl. Same explanation – “We have standard procedure…” What indeed has gone wrong with the world????? Such mistrust! I’m sure there would have been “people crying wolf” in the past but surely they could not refute the evidence on hand.

Through my insistence that I spoke to her “supervisor”, Godzilla returned. “Patiently” she explained to me that she could understand my situation and yet, that the airline’s policy was quite firm and unambiguous. And “imagine if I were to allow you to change seats at this moment, what would the other passengers think? Imagine the anarchy! We certainly cannot allow passengers who have not paid for the upgrade to think they could benefit from such.”

Bulldog emerged. If there were no such seats available, I would have dealt with it with a letter on arrival. But clearly, this was not the case. Bulldog to Godzilla, “This isn’t personal and I understand you have a procedure to follow. But put yourself in my shoes and listen to what you are saying to me. What your client is hearing is either “I don’t trust you” or “I don’t trust our system which produces such boarding passes or invoices.” Neither of which impresses your client. In fact, your client has already figured the first few paragraphs of an abusive letter to your CEO and taking his business elsewhere. Now imagine for a moment that you were right, and that indeed your client was untrustworthy, indeed a fraudulent genius who was into forging electronic invoices and boarding passes, what is the most it could cost you and your airline? Nothing, assuming you were able to articulate clearly to the other passengers that the move was made due to a mistake on the part of the airline.

But what if you were wrong, and that your client HAD indeed paid for the extra leg-room, was allocated a seat that wasn’t such despite reassurance from your check-in staff and that you held your stand because of “company procedure” when you indeed had many such seats vacant? What would be the ultimate consequence?”

I hope you get my drift.

As a professional, when working in a place that seems to be full of “standard operating procedures” that NEED to be followed, find out why these procedures are in place to start off with. Make sure you understand your organisation’s values, which will typically relate to things like “Client Orientation”, “Respect for the Individual”, “Service Excellence”, “Integrity”, “Flexibility” and your organisation’s mission and make sure these come BEFORE procedures. Procedures are there to serve, and often they’re based on good lessons learnt from previous mistakes. But conduct yourself strictly with procedures and you run the risk of turning yourself into a “machine” with no room to apply what makes sense and is intuitively right. And the people you work with “get it”. Principles, values on the other hand are timeless. Disregard them and the consequences are predictable.

Managers, are you managing your business and training your team by procedure or values and principles? When was the last time you had a good frank discussion with your team about your team’s Values and Mission, delved into them deeply to get to the heart of the matter. And focused on empowering your team with the attributes that you value most from them – their intuition, sense of fair play, client and outcomes orientation and their ability to uphold your reputation and credibility!

Make this day the very best one you so deserve!

Carpe Diem!