Community Voices

Beyond the Classroom: The importance of intelligent disobedience

At some point growing up, we heard someone say “be a leader, not follower.” As adults, we perpetuate the same mantra with our own kids. But while being a great leader is a coveted role, an intelligent follower can be key to maintaining the right course.

Intelligent disobedience

I recently read a book by leadership expert Ira Chaleff, Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told to Do Is Wrong. I found the concept applicable to fostering independent and rational-thinking children, especially when so many kids today are influenced by media and virtual realities.

Intelligent disobedience (ID) has its roots in guide dog training, where the animal is trained to go directly against a disabled owner’s instructions when a better decision will protect the owner. This disobedient behavior is a key point in a service animal’s success on the job.

One of the things a trusted guide dog is taught to do is called a counterpull. If the leader is about to step off a train platform, for example, the dog pulls in the opposite direction. When human organizations embrace this concept — whether a company, a school or law enforcement — the best followers know when to pull the leader back from the edge.

But a counterpull isn’t always enough. If construction blocks the path to the train and the leader says go forward, the dog not only resists, but will need to find a safer route to the train. The same goes for people. If followers get a command that is perceived as unsafe or unsound to execute, they need to create a rational case for a better way to achieve the desired outcome.

Leadership and Followership

The opposite of ID is blind conformity. In her article, “The Art of Intelligent Disobedience,” Clarion Enterprises President Bruna Martinuzzi explains that ID is not about setting out to be disagreeable or randomly disobeying rules. Instead, it is about using judgment to decide when an established rule serves to hinder an organization or process, rather than help it.

Writer Duff McDonald spoke with Chaleff in his New York Times piece “Creating the followers of tomorrow.” He writes that we are obsessed with creating leaders so much so that the words “leader” and “leadership” are core components of almost every mission statement of every business school in the world. Corporate spending on leadership programs now exceeds $50 billion annually.

If you consider the importance of leadership, we must also consider the notion of followership. One does not and cannot exist without the other. McDonald notes that the idea of being a smart follower is gaining academic attention. It is important to promote leadership in our youth, but it is equally important to raise good followers — those who know right from wrong and who have the courage to offer alternative options.

The Nature of Obedience

In our world where pressures to conform and obey are very powerful, why do we obey when we know it’s wrong? In a Simply Psychology article, “The Milgram Experiment,” Saul McLeod shares one of the most famous studies of obedience in psychology — that of Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram. In 1963, Milgram focused on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience by examining justifications for acts of genocide by during the Nuremberg War Criminal trials. Their defense often was typically based on obedience — that they were just following orders from their superiors.

Milgram concluded that ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being. Obedience to authority is ingrained in us from the way we are raised and continues to be reinforced in the home, the classroom and the workplace.

The Obedient Brain

We have two brains — a primitive brain and a higher-level functioning brain. Chaleff says that the primitive brain is designed to keep us alive. It’s the primitive brain’s fear of being fired that keeps us from questioning our orders. The high-level functioning brain demands that we pause and assess the complexities.

Being a subordinate doesn’t equate to a lack of power. Having expertise or a proven track record are some of the reasons for people to appraise their power in situations where they feel otherwise powerless. No one can ever be assured of the consequences of disobedience. That’s where courage comes in. Courage isn’t the absence of fear; it is what we do in the face of fear.

The influence of education on ID

In most child-rearing practices and educational forums, obedience is paramount. As children, we are taught to follow our parent’s directives, no matter what. Some parents instruct their children to follow commands simply because they say so. As teachers, we are taught that classroom management is key to creating optimal learning environments.

Penelope Trunk’s article “Teach your kids intelligent disobedience” shares how the mindset of these practices creates a zero tolerance for failure to follow instructions. She recalls Chaleff’s findings that while we emphasize learning obedience and surviving in an authoritarian culture, we have all but omitted the second stage — how to question or improve that culture.

Chaleff proposes that teachers (and parents) have a paradoxical role: to be an authority in the classroom (or home, in the case of parents) and the advocate for questioning and discourse. The brilliance of ancient Greek thinkers and teachers was founded upon questioning and argument. So these divisive aspects of the teacher (parent) role requires that these adults maintain an awareness to minimize the tendency of the first obligation so not to undermine the second, higher obligation.

Fostering a culture of ID in children

Chaleff proposes that ID is not an easy skill to master. Guide dogs first learn to obey, then they learn when to disobey. This makes learning not to obey a higher order skill. In addition to upholding the dynamics of obedience, we need to prepare people to intelligently disobey when appropriate.

Chaleff suggests that parents and teachers:

▪ Talk about why. Whenever possible, avoid the “because I said so.” Back up your commands with reasons rather than appeals to your authority. Help children to understand why they are being told to do something.

▪ Talk about personal responsibility of followers. Some followers can be autonomous — they make their own decision and feel accountable for them. Other followers are simply agents of other people’s will — they allow others to direct their actions, and then pass off the responsibility for the consequences to the person giving the orders. In the end, we are responsible for our decisions and actions.

▪ Teach the path of conscientious objection. Classroom discipline places almost all responsibility on the external authority. To develop the capacity for intelligent disobedience, kids must develop a capacity to listen to their inner authority and their innate sense of values while balancing it with the knowledge and prerogatives of the external authority.

▪ Expose kids to arguments. Dissent is part of education. Respectful disagreement between two authority figures—two adult family members, a parent and teacher — in front of children helps them understand that authority figures can’t always be right if they sometimes disagree with each other. It humanizes authority and makes intelligently questioning authority a social norm.

Leader-Follower partnerships

The creation of powerful partnerships between leader and follower is most evident when subordinates robustly support the leader’s agenda but are equally willing to speak up candidly. People typically know what is and isn’t ethical, it’s just that the pressures of hierarchy and outcomes do not allow open discussion.

Many professions, still tend to discourage ID. We need paradigm changes in our organizations — from the leader, whether an executive or classroom teacher, to the follower. We need to create environments where everyone holds themselves accountable for doing the right thing. For this to happen, there must be an understanding of the forces that work against this.

Whistle blowers

When we teach obedience too well, things can become dangerous. In his Psychology Today article “Exploring the Good Kind of Disobedience,” John Schuster says that whistle-blowers are one of the well-known forms of ID. Whistle-blowers have what Chaleff calls “refusal skills” — the ability to resist pressure.

Torture in Abu Ghraib prison. Corporate fraud. Atlanta teachers pressured to feed test answers to students. If someone had said no to their superiors, could any of these situations been prevented? Laura Carroll, in her review Chaleff’s book, reflects on the disturbing behaviors that can arise from passive obedience to authority and why it is important to discuss this concept early on to prevent future destructive obedience.

The future of Intelligent Disobedience

In our classrooms, our boardrooms and in our living rooms, we need to create norms for resisting “unthinking obedience.” We should foster foundations from which nonthreatening disciplines arise to protect organizational structures from the potential missteps of their authorities. We need great leaders and intelligent followers — and ID can make all the difference in the elusive dance between the two. Only then will people will hold themselves accountable to do the right thing — no matter what.

Laurie Futterman is a former heart transplant coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.