These days, following the guidelines won’t necessarily get a webmaster anywhere in the search results. Not following the guidelines won’t necessarily get a webmaster anywhere in the search results, either.
The reason why is easy to see. If a webmaster can directly influence their position in search results, then this puts the webmaster in direct competition with PPC advertising systems. The search engines like anything that helps them make money, and that is why they like some aspects of SEO. They like anything that helps make pages more visible to search engine crawlers, on their terms, and they like that search engines get talked-up/promoted. Get much beyond that, and the webmaster is on a direct collision course with the business case.
Is this bad news for the webmaster? Yes and no. The game is a lot harder than it used to be, and it could be argued that those who are doing the best at the moment lie at either extremes: the whiter-than-white hat who really doesn’t think about search engines at all, and the black-hat, who really doesn’t care about what the search engines think.
Following the rules is unlikely to get you banned, but appearing nowhere in search results is pretty much the same thing.
So, is the old white hat/black hat argument now dead?