Intelligent Disobedience

This is one of a series of posts on Intelligent Disobedience  by Ira Chaleff.

Ira Chaleff is the author of Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told to Do Is Wrong. Chaleff is an author and speaker who specializes in issues of leadership and power. His first book, The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and For Our Leaders,  presented his concept of “courageous followership,” the idea that a follower can be very loyal to a leader and still have the courage to speak truth to power.
Embed from Getty Images

In Intelligent Disobedience, he explores the concept of authority and how we are conditioned to respond to it from childhood. For many of us, obedience is automatic, especially when an order comes from a parent, boss or other authority figure. But we have learned that blind obedience can allow, even assist, evil. At the Nuremburg war crime tribunals after WWII, many lower level Nazi officers and soldiers claimed in their defense that they were just obeying orders. Befehl ist Befehl (“an order is an order”) is known as the Nuremburg Defense. It’s for this reason that Chaleff believes it’s urgent that leaders and followers reconsider the concept of obedience.

Chaleff says that following orders without applying ethical judgment can lead to great harm, including embezzlement and other business crimes, even bodily harm and death. He wants leaders to create a structure wherein a follower can make a conscious decision about whether to obey an order. He starts the book with a compelling story told to him by a nurse who attended one of his presentations. Early in her career 20 years before Chaleff met her), she’d been a young nurse, fresh out of nursing school, working in an emergency room. A cardiac patient was wheeled in, and after examination, the doctor in charge ordered her to set up an IV with a specific drug. She was stunned, since she’s learned in nursing school that this drug could be fatal to a cardiac patient. She had the courage, against all cultural norms and her training, to challenge the doctor respectfully, asking if he was sure that this was the drug he meant to order.

You can easily imagine the response; “Just do it!” he snapped. Her training and conditioning kicked in. She set up the IV bag with the medication the doctor had ordered. She did everything but open the valve on the IV bag to start the drip. Quietly, courageously, she asked the doctor to come over.  She informed him that he’d have to turn the valve himself.
We’ll never know whether the drug might have proved fatal, Chaleff writes, because that moment made the doctor re-think the order and administer another drug. The young nurse had discovered for herself how to practice intelligent disobedience. She had found a third option other than “obey” or “disobey” that led to a better outcome.

Here are the conditions under which obedience makes sense:

  • The system we are part of is reasonably fair and functioning.
  • The authority figure giving the order or setting the rule is legitimate and reasonably competent.
  • The order itself is reasonably constructive. (Chaleff writes that in situations that can cause grievous harm, the standard should be much higher.)

You may think that you’d never obey an order that would cause harm or lead to an illegal act, but history and science proves that most people do not question a compelling authority figure. Chaleff cites several psychology experiments that prove that most people accept orders under duress, even when they see evidence that their actions are causing harm.

So how do we learn the difference between obeying without question in a stressful situation when every second counts (whether you’re a soldier, pilot, public safety official, or medical professional – or an ordinary accountant) and when to stop and practice intelligent disobedience?

We’ll explore Chaleff’s framework for intelligent disobedience in future posts.


1 thought on “Intelligent Disobedience

  1. […] In an earlier post, I outlined the process of deciding whether to obey an order: […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: