When to Disobey Leadership

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Who wants a disobedient employee?

Surprise answer: smart bosses. Say what?

Leaders issue orders they believe will advance the organization’s success (and thus their own career). Their best followers intelligently obey, finding ways to make those orders work and achieve the goal. Isn’t that what leaders want and need?

Yes. But only when the order will actually achieve its purpose when carried out.

What if implementing the order will set back the organization and leave the leader with egg on her face? That’s when the smart leader wants intelligent disobedience. What makes it intelligent? One of the following criteria:


The leader has incomplete or wrong data, she is relying on old strategies that don’t apply in the new competitive environment. If the order were executed, it would have harmful outcomes. Disobeying will keep the leader and organization safe.


The leader knows a critical problem must be addressed. She issues orders that contain more risk than the board will sanction. Her deputy refrains from implementing and develops a less risky strategy. He gets the leader’s agreement to cancel the original order and put resources behind the new strategy. Again, the leader and organization are kept safe.


There is a policy against using organizational resources for non-work related matters. The leader is traveling when a hurricane devastates the company’s neighborhood. Her deputy disobeys policy and issues orders to use every resource the organization has to provide temporary relief. The goodwill generated for the company results in the city expediting its application to expand its facilities.

Who manages risk in your company? Are they reviewing the organization’s culture? Does it insist on unflinching obedience? Does it honor appropriate acts of disobedience?

Only the latter will keep you and your leaders safe.

When is disobedience the right thing to do?

How would you disobey the right way?

Ira Chaleff is the founder and president of Executive Coaching & Consulting Associates. He has been named one of the top 100 leadership thinkers by Executive Excellence Magazine. Whether working in the public sector with Senior Executive Service leaders or in the private sector with CEOs and leadership teams, he brings clarity to core success issues, and provides savvy and supportive guidance in tackling them.

Author of numerous books, this guest post is based on his 2015 book, Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told To Do Is Wrong.