How Intelligent Disobedience Can Help Your Career

January 4, 2016

YOU will rarely need to disobey an order. When you do need to disobey, it may be the most important choice of your career.

The vast majority of time, professionals execute orders they receive. The orders may be brilliant, good or lackluster. Implementing them may produce fabulous results, moderately good outcomes or not much benefit at all. But they won’t result in harm.

Some orders, however, would almost certainly prove harmful. Why would an executive issue them? There are any number of reasons: poor information, faulty analysis, pressure from key shareholders or constituents, etc. More serious reasons include ego inflation resulting in excessive risk taking and incentive schemes that distort values.


It is at this juncture that careers can be made or broken. How can compliance break a career? If the initiative fails horribly, your name is associated with it for a long time. If you could have warned the executive of pitfalls but you remained silent, trust may be shattered: “Why didn’t you say something?” In the rare instances of malfeasance, you are an easy scapegoat, being the individual who actually took the action.

How do you avoid these career stoppers without alienating the issuer of the order? This requires a professional competency that is almost never taught: Intelligent Disobedience. Now there’s a new term!


Intelligent Disobedience is the name given to a crucial skill in guide dog training. The individual who is blind and is using a dog to get safely to destinations depends on the dog NOT to obey commands that would put the team of dog and human at risk. The human trusts the dog to find a safer route around construction, for example. But this doesn’t just occur spontaneously. Both the dog and the human prepare for this eventuality with training.

This same type of training saves lives and projects in human relations. Airline crews are trained to speak up and even take the controls if the captain is failing to see and avoid serious risks. They practice overcoming exaggerated deference that is ineffective in preventing tragedies.

Surgery room nurses are empowered to tell surgeons not to start or end a surgery if there are contraindications for doing so. Advanced project management training prepares project leads to push back if mission creep will prevent the project from being completed on time or within budget.

All professionals should spend a little time preparing themselves to resist obeying if they see imminent harm in executing directions. They can never claim “I was just following orders!” if those orders were inherently flawed.

Here are a few of the ways to prepare for those rare but critical times when Intelligent Disobedience may be needed. Create your own industry specific hypothetical situations and practice these steps:

  • Let the shock of receiving a dangerous order register
  • Slow the action down to think it through
  • Check your understanding of the order with the issuer
  • Explain the risks in the order and offer alternatives
  • If ignored, try again using more assertive knowledge
  • If the order is repeated, state the reasons you will not implement it (that will usually make them reconsider before implementing it themselves)
  • Offer to take responsibility for the alternate course of action
  • If you temporarily assume the lead, turn it back to the leader when the danger is passed
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There are rare times when leaders will give orders that could be potentially harmful. Learning how to leverage intelligent disobedience will make you a greater asset to your organization. Build your leadership potential with these AMA resources and seminars.

About The Author

Ira Chaleff is the author of The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and For Our Leaders, now in its third edition, coeditor of The Art of Followership: How Great Followers Make Great Leaders and Organizations, part of the Warren Bennis Leadership Series, and his newest release, Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told To Do Is Wrong, which has been featured in the NY Times, Library Journal, and He is the founder of the International Leadership Association’s Followership Learning Community and a member of the ILA board of directors. He is a frequent speaker and workshop presenter, founder and president of Executive Coaching & Consulting Associates, and adjunct faculty at Georgetown University. Learn more at

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