GPM First
Chapter 10 of Advising Upwards (978-1-409-43430-6) by Lynda Bourne

Intelligent Disobedience: The Art of Saying ‘No’ to Senior Managers


Bob McGannon

Introduction – Some Definitions

Extraordinary: 1) beyond what is usual, ordinary, regular, or established; 2) exceptional in character, amount, extent, degree etc. noteworthy; remarkable.

Intelligent disobedience: 1) The ability to manage communications, relationships, processes and uphold corporate ideals to accomplish corporate goals; 2) The act of saying no to senior managers, deviating from corporate processes or acting against management direction for the sake of achieving stated objectives or outcomes.

Author’s definition

The phrase ‘intelligent disobedience’ comes from the world of Seeing Eye Dogs. 1 [42] In training these service pets, intelligent disobedience is defined as: a concept where any service animal trained to help a disabled person goes directly against their owner’s instructions in an effort to make a better decision.

This concept is one that would benefit today’s leaders. Its core is central to improving the process by which leaders make decisions. The corporate decision-making process is best executed from a set of comprehensive information. However, this process does not always proceed smoothly. Time pressures, the extent of leadership responsibilities and the fast-paced approach of businesses make communicating sufficient and good information for ideal decision-making challenging. Those same time pressures create stress for leaders who must make decisions and take actions in the best interest of the businesses they serve: hence the need for intelligent disobedience.

Truly extraordinary business leaders understand the advantages of complete ownership for the scope of the environments in which they manage. They understand their environments, have a very clear concept of the perceptions of their leadership team, and possess the courage to take action and make decisions that will best further the interests of the business. Sometimes this involves not complying with management directions they have received. Acting in the best interests of the business may also involve a careful examination of the nature of the direction or request against corporate standards and policies. Sometimes the interests of the business are best served by a decision not to follow prescribed rules and policies. Corporate processes and procedures are never written with perfect foresight, and cannot cover absolutely every eventuality and every context. Thus, the astute and courageous leader may be faced with a decision to make: do I do ‘as I am told’? Do I follow the corporate processes; even through in this instance I believe that it may not be in the best interest of the business?

The essence of being extraordinary is this: having the strength and confidence to ask such questions and not defaulting to ‘yes’. This is also the essence of intelligent disobedience. The most successful leaders test situations by asking themselves these questions in specific business and personal circumstances. A decision to act in this way involves some risk taking, but will be managed and made effective within the framework of understanding the business environment and the nature of that specific situation.

Simply put, knowledgeable and action-oriented leaders watch the activities of those around them. These leaders seek information from stakeholders such as their peers, team members, direct reports, customers and competitors. The information is obtained through direct conversations, news reports, interactions with trusted colleagues and attentive observation and should be considered as an essential part of any management task or role.

The leader’s manager and other managers in the organisation – ‘bosses’ – have even larger portfolios to manage. They see a different set of people, bring different information and perspectives and have varying degrees of familiarity with what is going on ‘in the trenches’ of their own organisations. These differences in awareness and perception may be significant. The astute leader will strive to understand and augment the information and perceptions of their management team, to contribute the best and most comprehensive set of information to the decision-making process. In contrast, weaker or less energetic people in leadership roles do not strive to understand and communicate this information.

Weaker leaders hide behind ‘what has always been done’, in the form of standard organisational processes, through a fear of being different and rocking the boat. The consequence of such thinking is that they will be reluctant to take action that could advance the position of the businesses that employ them.

This chapter will examine how advising upwards often means being a courageous follower. Operating within the principles of intelligent disobedience actively supports the organisation and its goals through commitment to a goal as having greater value over strict compliance with standard approaches and processes. The intelligent piece of intelligent disobedience means that where issues of legal compliance, mandatory regulatory constraints and business conduct guidelines are concerned, little to no disobedience reflects intelligence.

To demonstrate appropriate intelligent disobedience in action, a scenario involving a challenging and time-constrained major programme of work is included in the chapter. Case studies will demonstrate common occurrences of intelligent disobedience and how its application can affect the outcome of the programme and the projects within it. It is intended to provide examples that showcase the practice of intelligent disobedience in an organisation, and can be adapted to individual work situations. The nuances of relationships, organisational strategies, personalities and skills inventories need to be considered on an individual basis when contemplating or reflecting actions or potential actions of intelligent disobedience. What may be considered an act of intelligent disobedience in one environment may be a routine action in another. As they say in commercials – results may vary. Use of the case study description can provide guidance to forms of advising upwards within the framework of intelligent disobedience through

  • actions;

  • inaction;

  • demonstrations of results; or

  • demonstrations of a lack of results.


A Programme Scenario – PipeCo

This scenario is based on an actual programme and various projects that the author and his colleagues have managed, or been closely affiliated with through consulting engagements. To protect the privacy of the individuals involved all names have been changed, and in some instances the scenario simplified to support efficient analysis.

PipeCo is a small company, but it is well known for its industry expertise and excellent project delivery in the oil and gas pipeline and oil well construction sector. The owner of PipeCo – a large energy conglomerate called Englenergy – was forced to sell the company to an Eastern European oil company called Vortex. Included in the sale agreement between Englenergy and Vortex was the following clause:

PipeCo can continue to use Englenergy’s information technology infrastructure for a period of 12 months to allow it to develop its own technology infrastructure or to be absorbed into Vortex’s corporate IT infrastructure. After 12 months, if PipeCo requires the continued use of Englenergy’s IT infrastructure, Vortex will have to pay Englenergy $40,000US per day.


Vortex has directed the senior leaders of PipeCo to develop their own technology infrastructure. Vortex management decided that this approach would be more efficient than trying to absorb their operations into the Vortex corporate infrastructure. A programme has been launched with the following objectives:

  1. Determine the business and technical requirements for PipeCo’s information technology development and implementation.

  2. Prepare a Request for Proposal (RFP) to solicit proposals to build and manage the technology hardware and network infrastructure.

  3. Prepare a RFP for obtaining an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) application suite to provide a back office solution for PipeCo.

  4. Review and select an organisation to deliver item 1:

    1. review and select the ERP software package;

    2. customise the ERP software;

    3. integrate, test and install the hardware and software; and

    4. implement and run operations for PipeCo using the new infrastructure and application software.



There were delays in starting the programme: information technology expertise in PipeCo was scarce. The first four months was wasted while management was deciding how to approach the programme. Pressure on the PipeCo management team started to mount with only eight months remaining before significant IT charges were to be levied against Vortex.


This case study demonstrates one of the principles of intelligent disobedience: when the best interests of the organisation aren’t well represented by compliance to its processes, alternative approaches should be considered.

The infrastructure vendor was selected. The next step was to negotiate a contract. A standard Vortex services contract was the basis of the negotiation. The contract detailed a number of specific high-priority performance parameters for the information technology services. Penalties for failure to meet these parameters were included in the standard contract. There were two particular service level objectives for a high visibility customer service system:

  • The first defined limits for the number of system outages over each three month period.

  • The second defined limitations on the time for completion of the customer support process.

  • Other important considerations of the negotiations were that:

    • incremental improvements to the performance of the customer service system were being planned as operational experience was gained; and

    • an outage to the customer service application would be necessary each time new computer code was applied to implement an improvement.

With the planned progressive improvements to processes the programme delivery team anticipated that service improvements should be made in an ‘agile’ manner with the best approach being small and frequent incremental changes. With this strategy the organisation’s infrastructure vendor could easily reach the quarterly limit for the number of outages incurred in any three-month period.

PipeCo management were debating whether to postpone making any improvement to the client’s system because of the conditions of the service contract. This approach would have been the easiest course of action, requiring less work from both the infrastructure vendor and the ICT service organisation in the short term; the conditions of the services contract would have validated that action. However, that delay would have extended the improvement process planned for the customer, and delayed the benefits to the customer. There were risks associated with the ‘agile’ approach, as almost all changes to complicated information technology systems do. In fact, if the installation of the improvements did not go well, penalties could have been levied. Despite this, the delivery management team believed the risks of this approach balanced the potential performance improvement resulting from smaller, frequent improvements.

The programme delivery manager approached PipeCo senior management with a contract proposal incorporating a relaxation of the contractual penalties for outages over a three-month period, placing the potential performance improvement as a higher priority. Management agreed with this proposal, accepting the consequences that could result. Eventually, authorisation to suspend the outage limitation to the customer service system was provided, improvements were installed and worked as intended, delighting the customer and the end users of the system.


In this case study, management took a holistic view of the situation, determined that adherence to the strict conditions of the standard service contract in this situation would achieve a suboptimal result. The application of the principle of intelligent disobedience took the form (as it usually does) of advising the organisation’s leadership of a situation where processes were not working in both parties’ best interest. A positive decision in the best interest of all parties involved could be made after information was made available presenting the risks and benefits.

Case study 10.1 involved eliminating a hurdle to success. In some instances applying intelligent disobedience means becoming a hurdle, rather than eliminating it. To do this the leader who needs to drive an initiative to successful completion may have to instigate a fight amongst senior leaders. Yes, a fight. Case study 10.2 provides an example of the message that: ‘many larger initiatives suffer from a lack of a good, rich battle amongst the heavy hitters in the organisation’ and shows how a dose of intelligent disobedience can provide the impetus these initiatives need for successful outcomes.


At one point in the customisation of the software for PipeCo, some organisational objectives needed to be clarified to ensure the applications would support the business in an ongoing basis. After a couple of meetings where the objectives were discussed and refined, a high-level set of customisation objectives for the programme were derived by the PipeCo senior management team.

After reading the objectives and proposed approach for the programme, the delivery team was concerned that not all of the managers who directly reported to the programme sponsor were as supportive of the programme. Some were enthusiastic about these customisation objectives, and others appeared to view the customisation approach as detrimental to their personal and divisional objectives. The delivery team was concerned that they would not be able to progress the work very far without encountering considerable resistance. The sponsor and his team appeared to believe the objectives and outcomes of this programme were beneficial, there was a concern that the approach and suggested prioritisation had not been universally accepted by the important stakeholders.

A manager in the programme team approached the sponsor with these concerns. The sponsor’s reply was that he and his team were all fully committed to the programme and the proposed application customisations for completing it. Despite this, the delivery team knew that some individual stakeholders were not supportive, and decided an act of intelligent disobedience was required to demonstrate the presence of ‘unfought issues’.

The project manager arranged a series of short interviews with the sponsor’s direct reports regarding the customisation objectives. Interviews were recorded on a short summary form, capturing a few critical elements. (See Table 10.1 below.) The summary documented:

  • Each individual’s goals for the programme, in priority order;

  • The metric that would be used to determine success; and

  • The way that metric would be collected.

Using eight different versions of this stakeholder priority table, one for each of the sponsor’s direct reports, the delivery team demonstrated to the sponsor the differing views of his direct reports.

With this new information, the sponsor reconvened his team and addressed the differences (engaged in the battles). The resulting revised programme was delivered without the stress and difficulties that would have occurred if these conflicting expectations had not been resolved.

Table 10.1 Stakeholder priority table

Stakeholder value (priority order)

Customer support process changes

Construction site support productivity

Quality and accuracy increase

Increased staff efficiency

10-20% reduction in processing time per employee

> = 5% increased productivity per site support employee – measured in transactions per person

Minimise process changes

Less than 4 ‘core processes’ to change with the new system

Decrease transaction errors by 10% to 1 per 50,000

Cost reduction

Decrease site support cost by > = 5%


This case study demonstrates how conflicting stakeholder expectations can be managed successfully when the team understands the joint and individual requirements of its stakeholders. Leaders or team managers don’t always have this level of understanding, but they can acquire understanding through the use of information gathering and presentation processes such as the stakeholder priority table. With these processes and practices the leader or manager can gain that understanding, and increase the chance of successful completion of a programme based on a firm foundation of support from key stakeholders.

Situations such as the one outlined in Case study 10.2 surface when an initiative requires major change to how work is done. The benefits of having completed stakeholder priority tables for each key stakeholder include:

  • Conflicting stakeholder priorities are identified and understood, leading to their resolution.

  • Resource assignment decisions can be aligned with organisational objectives rather than just project objectives.

  • The leader or manager has access to vocabulary that has most meaning to each stakeholder: the objectives are recorded in the stakeholder’s own words.

  • Objectives are clearly understood and are within the defined boundaries of the agreed scope of the work.


The next case study demonstrates how the act of completing the stakeholder priority tables can reveal hidden agendas.


In this case study we examine differences in requirements and expectations of functional managers in the same team.

The stakeholder priority tables also assisted in resolving issues between managers of different PipeCo facilities. 2 [43] After the programme to select, customise and install new IT services had been approved for implementation, stakeholder priority tables were completed for the four main facility managers. Shortly after the programme started, one of the facility managers started to propose changes that appeared to be contrary to what was recorded and approved. The changes were causing obstacles to progress with the initiative. In a private conversation with that facility manager, using the approved stakeholder priority table as the basis for discussion, the delivery programme manager asked that manager to compare his recent change requests to his previously stated and agreed priorities and objectives. That comparison revealed conflict between his new requests and his previous agreements.

During that conversation, the facility manager revealed that one of his primary external customers had requested he deliver another urgent objective unrelated to this current initiative. His focus on this customer request would likely cause him to delay the implementation of the initiative shared and agreed upon by the other facility managers. To balance the needs of the current initiative and the newly discovered needs of the facility manager’s customer, a change was proposed to a non-programme-related project that would not impact the overall IT initiative. This action averted the obstacles to the programme, allowing it to progress while saving face for the facility manager and satisfying the request from his customer.

These first three case studies demonstrate actions to ensure the success of a short-term activity. Sometimes there are other drivers for the application of the principle of intelligent disobedience. One of the most significant acts of intelligent disobedience a leader can take is to allow something to fail. This is a difficult and emotionally charged action for forcing an action or decision, but often powerfully effective. Similar to letting a stubborn and determined child do something foolish, it can be a very effective way to achieve a long-term gain. The learning that can come from the failure will serve as a catalyst for significant action.

It may appear that allowing something to fail is acting contrary to the objective of ethical behaviour. Consider the following: allowing something to fail should not be the first attempt at moving the organisation forward. The intent of such an action must be a positive step for the organisation, not a vindictive approach to prove somebody wrong. Intervention and supervision to monitor and reduce any unintended impact to the business is crucial and will ensure that the leader still acts with integrity.

Letting something fail to move the business forward is not uncommon. It is accepted as a good thing to ‘stretch’ an employee by giving them a new, aggressive assignment, and to accept that some mistakes will be made, supporting the employee through any consequences of these mistakes. In the organisational context mistakes come with the learning to help the business in the long run. An extraordinary act is when a leader takes a personal risk in allowing something to fail, causing scrutiny on the organisation’s actions or decisions. The next case study gives an example of a situation where an aspect of an initiative was allowed to fail.


A key stakeholder was very aggressive in his desire to implement a new set of business processes corresponding with the changes to the information technology tools. The stakeholder was advised that a complete set of the current process documentation was required before new processes and the customised IT applications were put in place. The risk presented to the client was straightforward – the current process needed to be analysed to understand how a new process and change to the application systems would affect a current process. It was essential to insure that any departments affected by this change were able to continue to fulfil their responsibilities.

The stakeholder was anxious to move forward and wanted to proceed without performing the appropriate analysis of existing processes. He viewed it as unnecessary, and gave instructions to proceed with a pilot of new process and application changes.

The delivery programme manager approached this situation by suggesting that the pilot be kept small and also suggesting that the support teams prepare to create ‘lessons learnt’ from the process analysis and documentation steps. Proceeding with the pilot, the technology applications team planned the associated configuration changes for the pilot and was able to manage the large number of ‘but what about this’ type of questions that resulted during the testing of the applications changes. Although the process being changed was used by a large team, only a few of those team members were made available to analyse and recommend process changes. This team believed they fully understood the processes and activities, but as the testing progressed it quickly became evident this was not the case. The technology applications team allocated extra process modellers and applications staff (without our client’s knowledge) to fix the issues that were expected to surface.

The additional process modelling that the stakeholder rejected was not performed. This led to the failure of the pilot initiative, allowing the predicted knowledge gaps to emerge during reviews. The result of this failed pilot was a new paradigm and clearer understanding of the need for a comprehensive understanding of existing process models. This understanding was instilled in the client’s management team as well as the programme sponsor. Modelling was introduced to allow the change team to identify potential gaps ahead of time, and the progression to improved processes and application tools was implemented with minimal unintended and unexpected ‘breakages’.

Unlike this last case study, where efforts were hampered by a senior manager’s misguided requirement, there are situations where barriers to success are well known, but are not talked about openly. They are often referred to as sacred cows or unmentionables, and can impose significant burdens on teams. However, due to the influence of culture or the perceived opinions of senior stakeholders, team members and less courageous leaders are reluctant to raise these issues. On the other hand, extraordinary leadership means that the issues will be raised and addressed, even though such discussions will be difficult and politically charged and career threatening. When the issue is raised and addressed satisfactorily, the resulting new approaches and awareness can transform an organisation.

The best approach is to get to the point quickly, positioning the discussion in terms of a business issue or concern, rather than criticising the senior leader. A review of the business responsibilities given to the courageous follower positions the discussion around the conditions for success and opens the discussion for including the unmentionable, and a review of the expectations placed upon the intelligently disobedient follower. When there is agreement, the next step is dealing with the unspoken issue. This dialogue might proceed as follows:


Boss, I believe we need to discuss the X initiative.’




‘It is my perception that you have entrusted me with bringing Z results from this initiative, am I correct?’


‘Yes at a minimum, I believe you can do better than that.’


‘Understood. Given that, I believe I have to be aggressive should anything or anyone in the organisation present an obstacle to achieving these results. Would you expect that type of behaviour from me?’


‘ Absolutely.’


‘Well, given that, it would be irresponsible of me not to mention that the long-standing policy of Y is causing the members of the team to behave in H manner. Can we discuss possibilities for addressing this and potentially reviewing decisions that have been made in the past? Maybe that policy is no longer serving us well.’


Now, this example is a fairly clean dialogue. A real-life dialogue is unlikely to proceed in such a succinct way. The point of the exchange is to get to the underlined phrase. The point of the conversation is that the leader is addressing this potentially emotionally charged and maybe even embarrassing situation because it is their responsibility to do so. That responsibility has come about because of directions from the very same senior manager who is now participating in this conversation. The intent is to make clear there is no other agenda; the leader is trying to do his job.

A potential impediment to this calm dialogue is the presence of an aggressive senior manager. Despite appropriate and well thought out acts of intelligent disobedience, or just good leadership, some people can be extraordinarily difficult to ‘manage’. Although difficult people come in many forms, the aggressive manager seems to be common in the business world.

Chronically aggressive or defensive people are displaying a character trait that others have little chance of penetrating or changing, according to Elaine Krantz, MS, LPC, who works with leaders delivering workshops around the world. 3 [44] She states:

Dealing with chronic behaviours needs to be done on your terms, not theirs. Trying to use some form of retort to their aggressiveness, or expecting your actions to change them in any manner is a nearly hopeless cause.


The primary piece of advice she provides when dealing with senior leaders with these characteristics is to present only demonstrable data and documented tasks. If the leader does not agree with your evidence:

  • continue to present data;

  • stick to a focus on the tasks you are managing and the responsibilities of the leader;

  • be succinct and precise; and

  • don’t change your message.


The senior managers who will eventually respond to this do so because they realise their defensive or aggressive approach won’t change your view, or the evidence you present. The key is persistence and consistency: don’t be deterred by the responses you get. If you are successful the senior manager will react in the manner that you need to make your initiative successful.

There is another possible option in dealing with an aggressive senior manager, which is also a form of intelligent disobedience. If your own personal communication style doesn’t work, and the presentation of evidence has no impact, sometimes the best response to aggressiveness is to respond in kind. It may be that the aggressiveness displayed by your key stakeholder is a sign of their passion for a topic, and they want to see that passion in return. Your style, for reasons you may not ever understand, does not represent that expected passion in the eyes of the aggressive key stakeholder. Therefore, a viable strategy may be to imitate the behaviour and style of the manager you are trying to influence. It is uncomfortable; you are stepping out of your own natural communication style, yet it can be a very powerful approach. An example of applying ‘a style change’ occurred in our PipeCo programme and is described in the next case study.


PipeCo’s Chief Strategist was one of their few technical staff members. A long-term employee of PipeCo, he was respected by all and feared by many due to his aggressive and coarse manner. He had developed a robust and useful technical strategy for his organisation. The programme team was suggesting a change to this technical strategy as a result of the new information technology suite being installed. The programme manager was assigned the task of negotiating with the Strategist for his approval and endorsement for the necessary changes to the organisation’s technical strategy.

The first two attempts of logical and calm reasoning for the case for a change in the infrastructure were unsuccessful. He was very defensive and challenged the data and evidence in support of the change to an architecture that had ‘served the company well for a number of years’. Presenting the case a third time, the programme manager mirrored the Strategist’s style, attempting to ‘reach him’ in that way. The conversation went like this:



’You are here to try to convince me to change my strategy again!’

Programme Manager:

‘Yes. I am here to discuss changing the strategy, because the current business direction created a new need. Despite being brilliant 99 per cent of the time, in this instance you are acting like a new graduate holding on to a novel but impractical idea.’


(Raising his eyebrows) ‘OK then, what is the technical basis for your premise.’


The Programme Manager then explained the rationale for requesting the strategy change, quickly and succinctly. Concluding, the dialogue continued:


Programme Manager:

‘Is this an adequate explanation?’


‘Yes it is. I was wondering when or if you were going to come to me with conviction instead of a consultant’s “slick approach”, and I am glad you did.’




The Strategist was won over not by different facts but by an emulation of his own communication style. It was uncomfortable for the Programme Manager to approach him in this manner, but ultimately it got his attention and respect and provided the window of opportunity for him to actually listen to the recommendations. After that conversation, the relationship between the Strategist and the Programme Manager improved significantly.

Selecting the Opportunities for Acting in Extraordinary Ways

When to Employ Intelligent Disobedience

The case studies above present examples of the application of the principles of intelligent disobedience. Each situation, organisation and relationship is different so it is important to understand how to assess potential situations that may call for acts of intelligent disobedience. The most successful leaders understand there are very few absolutes, and that every situation needs to be judged on its own merits. Variables to consider will include:

  • the extent of the potential gain for the organisation;

  • the amount of effort being invested in other initiatives; and

  • the availability of critical resources.


Being extraordinary and consciously engaging in acts of intelligent disobedience are not for the meek.

Rare is the leader who is viewed as being special for passionately maintaining the status quo. Intelligently disobedient leaders must constantly assess the risk associated with the actions they take, especially when those actions involve the type of actions that have been described in the case studies:

  • breaking or bending organisational norms or rules;

  • pointing out issues that senior managers are ignoring; or

  • challenging the very culture of a long held business model.


Based on extensive conversations with leaders in workshops delivered around the world, 4 [45] a few common themes start to emerge when these leaders assess their degree of personal risk. These are:

  • degree of perceived business gain or loss;

  • the presence of other alternatives to accomplish the objective;

  • their relationship with senior managers who will be instrumental in the evaluation of themselves and the resulting business change; and

  • one’s moral stance on the situation – the degree of personal integrity involved in the issue.


Degree of Business Gain or Loss

The degree of gain or loss is viewed from both a personal and an organisational standpoint. Extraordinary actions and the risks inherent in them should only be taken if the resulting gain – or loss due to a lack of action – is deemed worthwhile. Leaders have shared that taking a long overdue action is the most frequent driver for acts of intelligent disobedience. In many environments, we are told, senior management teams will avoid recognition of a problem because the resulting actions necessary to remedy the problem are difficult. They are difficult because they often counter actions and decisions publicly made by the senior leadership team in the recent past. What is the essential ingredient which instigates action? A compelling sense that: ‘Something must be done. Nobody else has the fortitude to do this, so it falls to me.’

The Presence of Other Alternatives to Accomplish the Objective

The presence or lack of other more traditional alternatives for achieving a valued business goal is the next significant catalyst for acts of intelligent disobedience. These alternatives have either been tried recently or failed, or have been obstructed by reluctant senior leaders or stakeholders with differing objectives as detailed earlier in this chapter. In other instances, someone in the organisation, lacking other high-level sponsorship, defers to standard policies and approaches which have failed to produce optimal results. The extraordinary leader knows that something different and innovative needs to be attempted, and takes charge. The last two items typically are tied to a passionate and very personal rationale for taking action.

The Relationship with Senior Management

A strong, trust-based relationship with senior leaders instigates a level of commitment that is not common from the average leader. When a leader fully and completely supports his manager’s objectives, and has the desire to protect the senior leader from the consequences of a less than desirable result, the extraordinary leader will consider more extreme actions to achieve these objectives. This is truly personal, and the actions taken are initiated with trust that the senior manager will support the activity, understanding the reason and supporting the intended result.

The most proactive extraordinary leaders will propose or engage in an act of intelligent disobedience as a means of actually establishing a relationship with a member of the senior management team. Significant relationships are built as a result of substantial conversations, shared experiences, or both. Discussing a situation of significance with a senior manager, and proposing a bold or non-traditional action to solve it forms a basis for extending and expanding the relationship with that senior stakeholder. The leader that does this – after taking the time to do the appropriate homework – can quickly enrich a relationship. Alternatively, if the conversation goes badly, it provides the leader with a means to engage in other approaches to gain support for extraordinary actions, or to assess whether their intelligently disobedient approach will ever be supported by this manager. The leader can then evaluate their dedication to that organisation, whether they should apply their skills elsewhere in the organisation, or the marketplace at large. That decision is taken based on the last of the personal risk themes; the moral stance or personal integrity invested in the work and approach to personal accomplishment. Many of the attendees of our workshops report they were compelled to take the proposed action anyway, despite concluding that the action wouldn’t be condoned by the senior leader.

Moral Stance

Of all of the motives for engaging in an act of intelligent disobedience, the simple premise that ‘it was simply the right thing to do’ is the most compelling and motivating, according to our workshop participants. Leaders whose moral stance is challenged are compelled to ensure the appropriate business outcome is achieved, or to ensure that something they considered to be wrong was quickly corrected.

The most significant acts of intelligent disobedience disclosed by workshop participants have been inspired by a compelling requirement to be true to one’s self. This leader simply cannot work with integrity without addressing this compulsion. The extraordinary leader will do this alone, or involve trusted colleagues.

It is important to remember that a detailed understanding of the organisation, its culture, rules and stakeholder expectations is vital. The key to knowing when and how to be intelligently disobedient is embodied in a few critical questions:

  1. Is the rule or process I am going to break or alter tied to a legal compliance requirement?

  2. If I take this action, are the potential process breakdowns that may occur avoidable with quick, proactive communication?

  3. Will I be creating an unreasonable ongoing expectation with my client or my organisation if I change processes in this instance?

  4. Will anyone’s integrity, other than my own, be in question if I break the rules in this circumstance?

  5. Is the action I am considering tied to an objective I have in my own mind, rather than a goal that is known and communicated across the organisation?


If the answer to all of the above questions is ‘no’ then the extraordinary leader should pursue the action they are evaluating. Action is the key, either immediately, or as soon as any other required information is obtained. Either way, with the extraordinary leader, action is taken.


Intelligent disobedience has been defined as a critical approach to satisfying leadership capabilities and as the importance of attainment of goals over strict adherence to policy and standard practices. Through a series of case studies various scenarios describing how an act of intelligent disobedience was appropriate were presented. Lastly, a view to the thought processes a leader might use to assess whether or not to consider an act of intelligent disobedience is defined.

In all cases, it is a matter of understanding the business environment, the personalities, strengths and weaknesses of the stakeholders involved and the individual’s personal commitment and risk tolerance. Only after careful consideration should an act of intelligent disobedience be considered.


[1] See Chapters 1, 2, 3 and 10 this volume.

[2] Chapter 4 offers insights on how the culture can move from ‘command and control’ to a ‘sponsor’ culture.

[3] These ideas are covered in detail through alternative perspectives on the culture of management in modern Western organisation in Chapter 8.

[4] This will be a product of many factors: national, professional, industrial, even the dominance of specific generations – see Chapters 6, 7 and 8.

[5] Chapter 1 defines a structured process for developing an understanding of the relationships within the stakeholder community and mapping this community to ensure awareness of its networks and complexities. Chapter 3 discusses the most appropriate ways to craft communication to engage those stakeholders.

[6] Chapter 9 discusses the concepts of metaphors in more detail and its application in organisations for advising upwards.

[7] Chapter 5 discusses aspects of decision-making and Chapter 10 looks at how teams and their managers can assist the organisation’s leadership in making this transition.

[8] Chapter 4 provides direction on how to build the sponsorship culture within an organisation.

[9] Chapter 1 uses the case study of Heathrow Terminal 5. For another more personal case study see Bourne (2011) ‘Advising upwards: managing the perceptions and expectations of senior management stakeholders’ Management Decision.

[10] The Stakeholder Circle® is a registered trademark of Mosaic Project Services Pty Ltd, Australia.

[11] The terminal was designed by Richard Rogers Partnership – now Rogers, Stirk, Harbour and Partners: see The firm received a Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) London award in June 2008 for the building.

[12] ‘Airline tie-ups loom as crunch hits’; 18 May 2008, Dominic O’Connell.

[13] ‘What went wrong at Heathrow’s T5?’; 31 March 2008.

[14] This is still the case at the time of writing (2011).

[15] The concepts defined in this chapter and the methodology applies to all activities that an organisation approves, resources and funds to achieve its strategies and goals. Many organisations now use the discipline of project management to deliver these goals and strategies. So when ‘project’ is referred to in this chapter it can be interpreted in the widest sense to mean any activity, temporary or ongoing, that an organisation performs.

[16] In working with organisations using the Stakeholder Circle methodology and software for mapping and managing stakeholder relationships, the author has assisted in projects that have over 300 stakeholders (both individuals and groups) identified in the first step.

[17] Proximity simply defines how stakeholders are involved in the work of the project or activity.

[18] This research, conducted in the 1980s, may soon be superseded by research into Generation Y’s communication preferences for online forms and text messaging: see Chapter 7, ‘The new new Confucian communication game’.

[19] Colours are not shown here: for a full colour representation refer to or Bourne (2009).

[20] ’Best’ involves balancing what is realistically achievable against the importance of the stakeholder moderated by the amount of effort that team can allocate to the communication process.

[21] It is not essential that all stakeholders have a high level of support and receptiveness toward the activity: part of the key decision the team has to make is whether the stakeholder in question is important enough to warrant any additional work to achieve this high level of support.

[22] Beware of how you use email! Too many conflicts have been exacerbated by unplanned, intemperate use of email as a primary means of communication. A good rule of thumb is this: will you be prepared to say directly to the recipient what you have written in your email? If the answer is NO then you will need to rewrite it!

[23] This could be described as the ‘zero cost of stakeholder engagement’, a direct analogy to the concept of ‘zero cost of quality’ from the quality movement of the 1980s.

[24] A video demonstration is available at

[25] A Stanford University study subsequently revised the figures to 35, 20 and 45 per cent respectively. But the import remains the same: persuasive communication is about far more than the words we speak.

[26] The concept of ‘learning organisation’ is a critical aspect in this context, but is outside the scope of this discussion. The works cited here provide a good starting point for readers interested in pursuing this topic. A good practical application of the power inherent in a more questioning approach to leadership is provided by Captain D.M. Abrashoff, former commander of the USS Benfold, in his book It’s Your Ship (2002).

[27] See the assessment tools and action plan templates in the ‘Offerings’ tab of

[28] Chinese influence will continue to strengthen around the world: some of the author’s European friends are sending their children to Chinese language weekend classes to broaden their future job opportunities.

[29] This has been the experience of the author.

[30] Theory Y supposes that employees may be ambitious, self-motivated and exercise self-control: employees who enjoy their work and achieving work-life balance are not commonly seen in Chinese companies.

[31] Quanxi describes a personal connection between two people in which one is able to prevail upon another to perform a favour or service, or be prevailed upon. The two people need not be of equal social status. Guanxi can also be used to describe a network of contacts which an individual can call upon when something needs to be done, and through which they can exert influence on behalf of another. In addition, guanxi can describe a state of general understanding between two people.

[32] A second reason for the survey was to ensure that the author’s past experiences, which are the basis for this chapter, were still relevant. The results of the survey have supported the case studies and the analysis and guidelines for advising upwards in a Chinese organisation.

[33] This situation also occurs in Western organisations.

[34] This strategy is also often employed in Western organisations.

[35] The real world is the physical world excluding virtual worlds.

[36] The Analects of Confucius are the written record of the words, acts and discussions of Confucius and his students.

[37] This chapter is focusing on the demographics of people who were born between the late 1970s and early 1990s who especially have a ubiquitous familiarity with digital communication. Gamers may refer to ‘Generation Y’ or ‘The Nintendo® Generation’ (Black, Eng and Oispov 2009, p. 1).

[38] The Six As model is described in more detail in Chapter 5 of this book.

[41] At the time of writing (end of 2010).

[43] PipeCo facilities consisted of pipe and pipe support infrastructure manufacturing, inventory and distribution centres and construction sites. PipeCo also performed operational support and consulting so facility managers also include support managers for offshore oil platforms, and oil and gas processing facilities.

[44] From an interview conducted with Elaine Krantz on 27 August 2007 in Denver Colorado as part of the research for an update of my Intelligent Disobedience Workshop.

[45] Between March 2007 and July 2010, 62 Intelligent Disobedience Workshops have been delivered to over 1100 participants. The workshops have been delivered in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Australia and Singapore.



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