[June 15, 2018] Every time I’m asked about leaders who are disobedient, I think about how Guide Dogs act to protect their owners. If a blind person commands the dog to walk across a dangerous street, the dog resists. Being disobedient is obviously highly valued by the dog owner.
The question of whether a good leader can be disobedient is an uncomfortable subject to discuss because it runs counter to much of our training throughout our lifetimes. Our training is to obey. For example, obedience is continually reinforced in the military. Called discipline, the idea is that training soldiers to obey is good for the army and the individual.
However, there are times when obeying the rules must be put aside when immoral conduct is going on. Good leaders use their intelligence and experience to give them the ability to judge when they must disobey in order to do good. When leaders have a better grasp of a situation and a potentially damaging directive (or law, order, etc.) than someone who issued the directive, then they should disobey it.
There is a recent book out on this very subject. Author Ira Chaleff writes that effective leaders will guide their teams to learn and practice, what he calls, intelligent disobedience.1 One of his starting points is for a leader to identify specific risks and be willing to train others to give appropriate responses that will mean being disobedient.
Good leaders train and encourage their folks to do the right thing even when it may be perceived as the wrong thing. This empowerment encourages people to think before blindly following orders. Leaders should push people to do what is right without fear of repercussions by providing them with the social skills and leadership tools that make it easier for them to stand up when necessary.
It is not those who cannot follow the rules that have done the most damage in the world but those who follow the rules without the ability to think critically. The example of Nazi Germany and its soldiers committing some of the most egregious evils was justified as “just following orders.” This excuse didn’t allow any one of these men off at the Nuremburg trails and they were punished for their failures.
Doing the right thing is not always easy. A good leader can be disobedient under the right circumstances.