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“Look at that sign. ‘Absolutely No Checks! No Credit!’ Tell the man we don’t have enough money to pay him. Tell him before he starts working on the car!”

Our old car had a long history of various repairs, most of them minor. But it had served us well for three years, and we hoped it could give us one or two more. This time it was another radiator hose, easy to fix.

We had no credit card in those days. Only a check book. When he announced the problem and what it would cost to fix it, we admitted we couldn’t pay him.

“Well, I can take your check. No problem.”

We pointed to his sign that clearly stated his rule, but he brushed it off.

“I keep that sign up in case I need it. You look like good people. Just write me that check.”

That kind, trusting man held our car together for the next few months. And he always took our check. No problem.

People are more comfortable when they know the rules they absolutely must obey. They also are glad when others follow those rules of the road and the rules of a game.

I was warned as a new teacher to be firm in my rules. I could always lighten up as the year went on, but it was almost impossible to bear down on them later. When I taught fourth grade, I let my students help make some of the rules. That may sound unwise, but it worked. They didn’t want chaos, and they wanted to know they were safe.

Handbooks are a good source for policies and regulations in companies and organizations. But there are so many other things that are assumed. Those unwritten rules often supersede those that are formally stated. They are powerful “suggestions” about our behavior that tell us how to get along and succeed. From an early age we learn to use them in all sorts of situations.

When I was a temp worker during our last year at the seminary, I moved from one company to the next, sometimes landing in five different offices during any given month. I quickly learned the rules for creating documents for each business. I also learned to keep my head down and observe what rules were guiding people’s behavior.

That caution was especially important when I could sense a toxic environment that demanded cutthroat competition. Fortunately I was never a part of the office hierarchy, and I had no vested interest in a long-term career path. On the other hand, I truly enjoyed those companies where the unwritten rule was one of respect and courtesy from everyone.

As a teacher, I worked the balance between being in charge and creating an atmosphere of mutual respect. When I taught high school sophomores it took several weeks for them to trust that I was truly interested in them as more than just my students. I showed them it was okay to make mistakes by modeling my approach to a writing assignment, crossing out words and phrases and going in a different direction. I encouraged their self-expression and creativity. But they also had to learn what lines not to cross. I wasn’t their buddy.

Leaders sometimes aren’t aware of the unwritten rules that permeate their group or company. Since they are “in charge,” those rules often don’t apply to them, especially if they are in a privileged situation. Often they have no idea what others are expected to do to succeed or stay in good standing.

It is so important to be aware of those unwritten rules that govern our leadership style. Organizations and families that understand those rules are stable. People need to feel secure in knowing what behaviors are rewarded and affirmed and which ones need to be corrected. Otherwise they are confused about what is going on. When we are sensitive to the expectations we are putting on others, we can lead more effectively.

It is also wise to provide coaches and mentors who can share those unwritten rules. However, we should avoid choosing those imperious people who are quick to castigate newcomers with “That is NOT the way we do things around here!” No one enjoys being subjected to that.

Some people see the Bible as just a book of rules to follow. They wonder how they can ever remember them all. They worry about making a bad decision or being judged for taking a wrong step. And yet our Lord Jesus says to set our heart on seeking Him. He says there are just two rules: Love the Lord God with all your heart, soul, and mind. And love your neighbor as you love yourself (Matthew 22:37-39).

I know I struggle at times to keep even those two. But that’s when my Lord Jesus whispers in my ear: “You can’t, but I did. And that’s why you only have to believe in Me.”

Attend the Way of the Carpenter workshop and learn a new way to relate to your team. 

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