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Bob McGannon, Author, Intelligent Disobedience: The Difference Between Good and Great Leaders

While you may have fantastic processes, they won’t generate business improvement. Better results come from staff members who not only think and follow process, but are encouraged to break the rules, when appropriate, to improve your business outcomes.

Why? Obeying all of the rules rarely generates breakthrough business performance because it does not generate new approaches. Breaking the rules randomly does not work either. Through careful planning, understanding the environment and quantifying goals, proper rule breaking can accelerate business improvement. It can’t be done haphazardly however; coaching and support to drive this improvement needs to come from the top of the organization. The power to engage in this “intelligent disobedience,” comes from the CEO’s office.

Intelligent disobedience is the term used to describe seeing eye dog behavior when they avoid danger by disobeying their master’s commands. The dog’s role is to understand the master’s goal, while utilizing richer information to steer toward that goal. When the dog disobeys its master, the master must follow the dog’s guidance. The analogy is relevant, as your employees have “on the ground” information you don’t. Capitalising on that information to maximise the speed and effectiveness of change is the impetus behind launching a practice of intelligent disobedience with your management team and staff.

Sadly, not everyone on your team is likely to appropriately execute intelligent disobedience. The key is to find employees that demonstrate the appropriate characteristics. Choose wisely, and you can build a successful practice, leveraging the benefits of intelligent disobedience to generate better business results. Pick people with the following characteristics to increase your opportunities for success.

Driven to Contribute – Their job is their vocation

People who successfully engage in intelligent disobedience are driven, on a daily basis, to make contributions to the business. They do not take their jobs lightly, nor their potential impact casually. Their jobs are an expression of their vocation, rather than only a way to support themselves and their families. They are just as vocal when expressing their support of a new idea as they are to share concerns. Often, they express both whenever a new idea is presented. 

Healthy business and personal balance

The “driven to contribute” characteristic needs to be paired with balance, as change on a daily basis is exhausting. The overly driven team member can leave other employees behind, who may struggle to adopt new approaches to accomplish business objectives. Healthy balance is the ability to understand one’s own energy levels and those of others. It requires thorough consideration of changes being proposed, and a focus on both the big picture and the human emotional and skill based capabilities required to bring a change to fruition.

Short and long term business focus

Consciously and cautiously balancing short and long-term outcomes for the organization is a critical factor when considering acts of intelligent disobedience. Understanding and applying organizational priorities for short and long term performance, and accounting for the challenges short term improvement can present in the longer term (and vice versa) is critical for many acts of intelligent disobedience.

Builds constructive relationships

The need for building trust and communicating effectively in tense situations and building constructive relationships is a fundamental part of intelligent disobedience. A vital aspect of constructive relationships in a business setting is that an appropriate give and take exists, and staff members are perceived as fostering relationships for more than just political motivations.

Builds long term relationships

Relationships that are perceived as sincere are lasting, regardless if the parties continue to work in the same environment. Long term relationship builders are adept at building new relationships when needed, and maintaining ownership of those relationships longer term so they can offer help, or ask for assistance when needed without fear of encountering awkwardness. Long term relationships can be crucial to foster support for intelligently disobedient actions.

Capable of finesse

Intelligent disobedience requires everything from direct, blunt communication to commanding subtleties when trying to influence senior leaders. Often the way to success is to walk the tightrope between communicating a thought without sugar coating it, to gently leading a senior leader down a path so they draw their own conclusions. This breadth of finesse expands the capability for successfully executing intelligent disobedience.

Finding staff members with all of these traits is a challenge. It doesn’t require all of these traits to engage in intelligent disobedience, but a greater degree of flexibility can be granted to those who display more of them. Fortunately, you can coach your staff to bring out these characteristics. Here are steps you can follow:

  1. Define different levels of intelligent disobedience – the ability to alter, create or ignore rules.
  2. Determine the characteristics described above that are required for each level. Typically I recommend the first two characteristics, driven to contribute and healthy business balance, are required before any intelligent disobedience is authorised.
  3. Review any acts of intelligent disobedience with your management team. Did they work? How could they be refined? Sharing these acts and outcomes as “learning moments” present excellent opportunities to apply successes across your business, and adjust actions by your staff that could be improved.
  4. On a quarterly basis, review staff performance against the characteristics listed here, and adjust the level of intelligent disobedience flexibility you provide to staff members when appropriate.
  5. Celebrate the improved business performance achieved through your intelligently disobedient practice!

About the Author

Bob McGannon is the author of Intelligent Disobedience: The Difference Between Good and Great Leaders and provides training, keynotes and consulting services worldwide helping organizations deploy intelligent disobedience in their management practices. He can be reached at or via the website.

[Image courtesy: Brent Payne/ Flickr]


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