When to Break the Rules

I’m sitting next to Rick, a retired railroad engineer, on a delayed Southwest flight from Tampa to Baltimore. It’s been a LONG week of serial cancelled flights, and other travel frustrations. I’m wearing the same suit I wore in Detroit on Tuesday because I never did make it home between gigs.

Rick doesn’t seem to notice the wrinkles, as we begin swapping travel nightmare stories.

It was the middle of winter and the train was headed through a really rural section of upstate New York. The snow was coming down so hard you couldn’t see the sky, when the train stopped dead on the tracks—serious engine trouble. After several hours of waiting for help, it was clear we had a very long night ahead of us.

The café car ran out of food. The passengers were one Snickers bar short of a riot.

Jeff (whom Rick proudly pointed out he had trained), went to the café car attendant and said, we’ve got to solve this problem—people need to eat. Please give me some cash, I’m going to find food.

Jeff then trudged through the snow to the Kentucky Fried Chicken and said he needed 159 chicken dinners.

The kid behind the counter looked panicked, “Look, man, I want to help and I’ve got the chicken, but I don’t have enough staff to cook all that!”

Jeff smiled, “No worries, I used to work at a KFC. Let me just wash my hands and come back and help you.”

I can only imagine the eruption of applause as Jeff returned smelling of grease and salt, and began handing out free chicken.

It’s hard to be cranky with a drumstick in your hand.

Many customers took the time to write Amtrak with commendations. Amtrak fully supported his out of the box thinking.

Two weeks later his boss wrote him up for having his hat on crooked.

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Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells - building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.


  1. Excellent post, Karin! I love your story and the message of stepping out of our daily routine and rising to the occasion to make something happen.

    I think I have broken the rules many times as I am a believer in empowering each of us to take action. I am coaching an emerging leader who is upset with his controlling boss. By not sitting by and letting it all unravel, this young Millennial is asking how he can grow specifically. He is taking his career into his own hands.

    Thanks Karin!

    • Terri, Thanks so much. I’m glad you’re having success coaching someone to take action and do what needs to be done. We need more #winningwell leaders like that.

  2. I gasped at the end! You know, people who are willing to do what REALLY needs to be done are the ones who have satisfied customers. It is such a big difference from “doing your job” even if that is what people say they want. This person showed your need to treat your customers like human beings. His company, with the hat write up, not so much.

  3. Excellent post.Breaking rules & regulations (without a very genuine / solid reason) in the organizations could result in dire predicaments.This must be a well thought act with proper consultation / deliberation / justification.In many organizations this may result in the form of hostile reaction of Sr. management.
    Zafarmanzoor, Sr. Executive, Pakistan.

    • Zarmanzoor,
      I agree with you that culture matters. This story says a lot about the Amtrak culture as well as the empowered conductor.

  4. Karin, Great story! I always tell people, think about what makes sense to the company and the business. Aside from safety issues, there often can be a wide gap. When I trained customer service, my motto was to ‘break the rules’ – as long as you have weighed the options, considered safety and the customer first, and are willing to accept the consequences. Understanding what could go wrong and weighing those risks is something that is not often discussed/taught. So often, the rules are written for the “perfect” situation – but how often does that happen? I wanted employees to understand the human side to business, and those humans provided us and kept us in business. Not always a concept supported by all businesses, but some do. Think about some of the retailers and restaurants you might frequent and their policies. I work for a training company who supports our military communities. I am proud to work with company owners with a motto of “put our soldiers first” – do right by them, because they are our purpose. We do think outside the box to make things happen, regardless what other training companies might do or recommend. We think about our customer needs first – and our managers recognize us for doing that. I hope that guy has found a company that appreciates him too!

    • Tammy, Thanks so much for sharing your experience and stories… it’s always great to have additional perspective and examples. Let me clarify, overall the Amtrak culture was very supportive of this employee and his action… but he clearly had a supervisor who need to read Winning Well 😉

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