Can a Good Leader be Disobedient?

By | June 15, 2018

[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.


Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

29 thoughts on “Can a Good Leader be Disobedient?

  1. Bryan Lee

    Good article today Gen Satterfield on a subject that most of us don’t think about too much. I suggest a followup soon on the impact of disobedience when that decision is made. Thanks.

  2. Greg Heyman

    I only wish that someone had taken the time to explain this to me as a child. My life has been a slow learning process from day one. Of course, the Internet had not been invented yet. For many today, they still would rather play games, be idiots or zealots, than learn about how to become a better person. Reading this blog is one small way to help.

  3. Joe Omerrod

    This idea applies particularly to the medical field where “procedures” are rigidly enforced for the need to prevent unnecessary deaths. It is the truly courageous doctor or nurse that has to make a snap decision (based on good judgment) to disobey. Thanks for a great post today.

  4. Andrew Dooley

    Good comments today on disobedience and how it requires good judgment and also a strong resilient personality to make quality decisions.

  5. Georgie M.

    Ahhh, Friday and a great post by Brig Gen Satterfield. Thanks for making my day that much more educational.

  6. Dennis Mathes

    You guys are too quick for me. I too loved the guide dog thumbnail.

  7. Doug Smith

    The ability to learn when to obey and when to disobey is one of the keys to becoming a mature adult. I still find adults, however, that never learned to properly make this transition. The results of it follow them throughout their lifetimes and they wonder why their lives are not going well. Simple, they cannot make good judgments.

    1. Douglas R. Satterfield Post author

      Yes, Doug. You are correct in your analysis yet too many believe that there are external factors that make people failures. We need to look within first.

    1. Danny Burkholder

      Thanks Eric. Good book, I read it earlier this year.

    2. Jonathan B.

      Eric, this helps make Gen Satterfields’ point in his article. Thanks.

  8. Jerry C. Jones

    Yes, many of us as junior leaders learned that sometimes you have to make decisions that run counter to the directives we’ve been given. That is why it is often best for leaders to give broad guidance rather than micromanage people. The individual has free thought and with the right experience, they can make good judgments (sometimes to disobey).

  9. Ronny Fisher

    Sometimes living in a free society means you have to be capable of making quick judgments to disobey.

  10. Gil Johnson

    A neighbor who is the child of Vietnamese parents learned this lesson the hard way. Her parents were devoted to their country but when the Communists went back on their word and rolled into South Vietnam after a peace treaty, her parents escaped only by the skin of their teeth. She learned that disobeying the government orders to stay put would not work in the case of her countrymen.

  11. Billy Kenningston

    I am no history buff but I think you will find this message – to know when to disobey when the situation calls for it – throughout all writings even from ancient times.

  12. Shawn C. Stolarz

    I’m reading a book on WWII and enjoying it immensely. There are clear parallels in what you write to what the book tells us about how the American soldier on the ground after the invasion of Europe. Very interesting.

  13. Tony B. Custer

    Another beautiful Friday morning and another great blog treatise to make me think. Much appreciated.

  14. Mr. T.J. Asper

    I like the guide dog analogy. I’ll be using it in class today.

  15. Dennis Mathes

    I strongly agree that obedience is hammered into us from birth. From that upbringing and into our work careers the same message works; obey! Difficulty overcoming this training is difficult and we all struggle to make good judgments in the right situations to make the right call. Hard to do.

  16. Darryl Sitterly

    Good article and worthwhile to read on the train into work this morning. Thanks.

  17. Army Captain

    Thanks Gen Satterfield for another great subject handled well. I can appreciate the analysis because this has always been a point of friction with me and many of my peers and our superiors.

  18. Max Foster

    Good Friday morning article. I thought your article was going one way and went another. I like it. Thanks.

  19. Joey Holmes

    I like the dog thumbnail. Ha ha! CHEERS!

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