As a lifelong student of the art of leadership, I learned early that there is a delicate bond between leaders and their followers.

For starters, there is the study of obedience by Stanley Milgram. In this classical experiment, subjects continued to administer what they thought were electric shocks to individuals on the other side of a wall even though they could hear screams from those individuals.

One of the principal takeaways from this important study of human psychology is that whenever we view ourselves as agents of an authority, we quickly lose our normal sense of responsibility for the outcomes of our actions.

When we do not take responsibility for our actions, we tend to follow orders even when we sense that doing what we’re told is wrong.

In his new book, Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told to Do is Wrong, Ira Chaleff identifies three crucial sources of the bond between leaders and their followers: purpose, values and mutual self-interest.

While most of the time we expect a follower to obey his or her leader, there are times when actions requested by the leader violate the purpose, values and/or mutual self-interest of the parties involved.

The challenge we see in organizations trying to reconcile the above violations, particularly organizations that are highly hierarchical, is that leaders can imbue a fear of push back or challenge.

This fear of saying what we believe is potentially hazardous to the long-term interest of those we serve, and even to our own organizations, wears us down over time and prevents intelligent disobedience from taking hold when it does become necessary as a check on the power of leaders.

Chaleff points to several situations when intelligent disobedience is called for, including:

  • when the leader issues well meaning orders based on poor information, faulty interpretation or misjudgment of likely consequences;
  • when the leader has lost touch with the underpinning values of the organization;
  • when the leader is directing the follower and team to take unworthy, immoral or illegal actions; and
  • when the leader creates and encourages a bureaucracy to become so divorced from those it is designed to serve that it spits out rules that seem to tie the hands of those sworn to provide that service.

To build teams and organizations where intelligent disobedience becomes more common, we need to realize how difficult it can be for followers to disagree and share their unique perspectives.

Creating a higher level of trust among those we have the privilege of serving will come only from genuinely communicating, over and over again, our sincere interest in hearing what others are thinking.

Reinforcing this culture of safety will create the conditions for healthy obedience and the occasional need for intelligent disobedience.