Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told To Do is Wrong

intelligent disobedience

True or false: “Two-thirds of us would obey under certain circumstances even when we thought doing so was causing harm to others.”

True. According to leadership expert Ira Chaleff, well-documented evidence around for more than fifty years now supports this phenomenon. Think it would not apply to you – that you would be in the one-third who would not obey? As Chaleff will show you in Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told To Do is Wrong, don’t be so sure.

In our world where pressures to conform and obey are very powerful, Chaleff takes on a fascinating question – In certain situations, why do we obey when we know it’s wrong?

A Balance Between Obedience & Choice

The book offers fresh answers to “striking a balance between obedience to authority and independent choice.” As Philip Zimbardo, creator of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment writes in the Foreword, these answers include compelling social science research and something you would never guess – what we can learn from the training of trusted guide dogs – yes, guide dogs, who receive serious intelligent disobedience training.

In Intelligent Disobedience, Chaleff teaches us what it is (e.g., how it is different from civil disobedience), what behaviors comprise it and how we can build skills to use in situations that call for it. While he gives examples from many professional situations, Chaleff intends to write to readers as the “whole person.” Whether parent, aunt/uncle, mentor, coach, or any other kind of steward to the next generation, he asks us to look hard at how children are being raised – “will the meta-messages they are getting in the current system equip them to be strong adults who can take difficult stands” and be “strong citizens who can protect the values of our culture?” Adults can ask themselves this question as well.

Wired to Obeyintelligent disobedience

The book takes an interesting look at how from an evolutionary perspective, we become “wired to obey.” Chaleff gives a great discussion on the infamous Milgram experiments conducted in the early 60s, what they tell us about our (disturbing) behavior when it comes to obedience to authority, and why the findings remain relevant today to understand what we need to do to resist destructive obedience. He also gives provocative examples of how military, corporate, medical and other professional spheres discourage intelligent disobedience. But he contends that it starts much earlier, with primary and secondary educational systems serving as a “prime shaper of obedience to formal authority.”

Chaleff is not trying to “weaken obedience to legitimate, ethical, and productive uses of authority;” he is talking about being much better at making a “conscious choice of whether to obey or to dissent in a specific situation.” To this end, the book lays out clear principles of intelligent disobedience in action and detailed steps on how to teach it to others.

The Future

He closes with reflections on what intelligent disobedience can mean in the grander picture for the evolution of human civilization. This could be the subject of a whole other book, to be sure. Chaleff discusses the need to create norms for resisting “unthinking obedience” and disciplines that don’t threaten existing structures yet protect “against the mistakes or misuses of authority within those structures.”

Chaleff wants us to look to the future, and how to root younger generations “in appropriate respect for authority” yet help them “break sufficiently free of that authority to establish their own sense of how to be and contribute to the world.” He holds a vision for a culture where people hold themselves accountable to the right thing – always. Just think how this would make for a better world!



  1. Ira Chaleff


    Thanks for a great thumbnail sketch of the principles of Intelligent Disobedience and how it can make a difference in the world. You captured the essence of my ideas and reinforced them with your own sense of their potential.


    Ira Chaleff
    Author of Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told To Do Is Wrong

    • Laura

      My pleasure! Very interesting read…


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