Intelligent Disobedience – Learning From Guide Dogs


In Ira Chaleff’s 2015 book Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told To Do Is Wrong, ‘intelligent disobedience’ in guide dogs is a metaphor for an important but often overlooked behavior pattern for humans.

A guide dog trainer told him that –

Most of the time it’s really important that the dog obeys human instructions. But imagessometimes it would be dangerous to do so; for example, when a man with limited sight gave command to step off a curb just as a quiet hybrid car was turning into the
street.   The dog must know not to obey a command that will put the team—human and dog—in danger.   Learning not to obey is a higher order of skill.

I was reminded of this recently listening to a young Marine officer recount how during an operation in Iraq he refused to follow an order, sure that if implemented it would lead to loss of life in his platoon.   Fortunately his senior officer commended him for his disobedience.   Both the junior and senior officers acted responsibly—the junior officer for his “intelligent disobedience” and the senior officer for recognizing that there are circumstances when obedience is wrong.

That experience is the heart of Chaleff’s book, a sequel to his earlier work, The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To And For Our Leaders.

He contends that our default response to authority is nearly always obedience, even when obedience is dangerous if not wrong.   We learn it early at home from our parents. It is reinforced in school.

Throughout our adult lives unquestioned obedience to authority becomes a cultural norm whatever the setting, blinding us to the destructive and immoral use of authority and immobilizing us even when we recognize that what we are told to do is wrong.   Seldom if ever are we taught when it is necessary to disobey authority.

Chaleff thought that if dogs can be trained for “intelligent disobedience” what about humans.   He argues that is just as important for us to know when and learn how to defy authority, as it is to obey.

Children, for instance, need to know when to refuse to go along with inappropriate contact with adults that could lead to sexual abuse.   He contends that parents and teachers need to teach and role-play “intelligent disobedience.”

The recent scandals at VW and Wells Fargo could have been prevented if lower level employees would have refused to go along with executive directives to engage in what they had to know was illegal and potentially criminal.   They probably thought they had to go along to keep their jobs.   But many of these employees eventually lost their jobs anyway.   The companies have experienced extensive losses while the executives have yet to be held responsible.

In the Nuremberg Trials after World War II, following orders was not an allowable defense for war crimes.   Likewise in any area of life we are always responsible for our actions regardless of the authorities.

Chaleff contends that leaders as well as followers need to learn ‘intelligent disobedience.’ Good leaders will tell followers not to obey when obedience would undermine the core values of the organization or violate their own morals.   A blind person expects the guide dog to refuse an order that would lead them both into harm’s way.   It takes a lot of training for guide dogs to learn that.

Good leaders know that they are not always right however well intentioned.   So they will commend followers for doing the right thing even if it is contrary to direction.

The problem is that ‘intelligent disobedience’ can be risky.   The employees at VW and Wells Fargo were understandably right to fear losing their jobs if they refused to go along.   ‘Whistle Blowers’ are more often than not denigrated rather than rewarded—thus recent laws to protect them.

Just as the marine junior officer risked his command and rank to save lives, so we all, leaders and followers alike, depend on the moral courage not to obey when to follow authority would damage if not destroy our personal and collective good.

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1 Response to Intelligent Disobedience – Learning From Guide Dogs

  1. Oliver says:

    Excellent blog, Tom. You raise a relevant issue. As was seen with the Wells Fargo fiasco, those at the lowest rung of the corporate ladder find themselves in a difficult position because the command to set up these accounts is very veiled. Most companies continue the practice of “bridging” to this day. Employees in customer service are expected to bridge; sell the customer something after you take care of the pressing needs.
    More to the point, you make an excellent case for civil disobedience, a questionable action for many evangelicals. Dietrich Bonhoeffer should be our model, “Silence in the face of evil is evil itself. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
    Martin Niemöller, who spent considerable time in German concentration camps said, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out; because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out; because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out; because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

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