The Seven Essential Characteristics of Intelligently-Disobedient Leaders

Posted on October 11, 2021

I’m often asked if anyone and everyone in an organization can execute intelligent disobedience (ID). The answer is definitely NO! To execute ID successfully, certain characteristics need to be present. Here are the characteristics I look for in an intelligently disobedient leader.

Characteristic 1: Driven to Contribute

People who successfully engage in intelligent disobedience are driven to contribute to the business. They do not take their jobs or their potential impact on the business lightly. Their jobs are an expression of their vocation, not just a way to support themselves and their families.

They also enjoy learning and driving organizational change. They enjoy work and immerse themselves in their business environment.

Characteristic 2: Focused on Short and Long-Term Business Outcomes

Balancing short and long-term business outcomes is a critical factor for successful intelligent disobedience. When a short-term objective is required, intelligently disobedient individuals focus on those short-term objectives, but they also remain mindful of long-term impacts and what can be done to manage them. They are also adept at mitigating short-term impacts generated by activities intended to provide long-term benefits.

Characteristic 3: Assess Change Ambition

Change ambition involves recognizing one’s own energy levels compared to those of others. A person’s drive to contribute must be tempered to prevent exhaustion for the rest of the team. For example, an overly driven leader could leave employees struggling to adopt frequently changing business approaches.

Team members who properly manage change ambition develop new processes to facilitate a change while gauging the organization’s appetite and energy to implement the change. They recognize the support needed to ensure their colleagues understand, appreciate, and can absorb a change. They also know to slow down or postpone a change that overly taxes the organization.

Characteristic 4: Display Healthy Ownership

Healthy ownership is the ability to own what is appropriate and allow others to take responsibility without interfering. People who can apply intelligent disobedience successfully work within their spheres of influence and responsibility, where they have the authority to act. In addition, they offer help to others in a manner welcomed by their colleagues.

In contrast, people who inappropriately assume responsibility for others, act without advance consultation, or apply intelligent disobedience with righteousness about the inaction of others, are not good candidates as their actions aren’t appreciated by their peers.

Characteristic 5: Build Boundary-based Relationships

Constructive, trust-based relationships are a fundamental part of intelligent disobedience because people must be able to communicate effectively in tense situations. A prerequisite for successful intelligent disobedience is the ability to build relationships where support and pushback are presented respectfully with regard for each person’s needs and point of view. Intelligently disobedient leaders won’t provide inappropriate favors to others as a means of maintaining a business relationship.

Characteristic 6: Build Long Term Relationships

People who develop relationships only to let them dissolve when they no longer work with their colleagues, appear opportunistic and focused on short-term goals. Sincere relationships are lasting, even when the parties stop working in the same environment. Long-term relationship builders are adept at establishing new relationships while also maintaining existing contacts.

Characteristic 7: Capable of Finesse

Influencing senior leaders while engaging in acts of intelligent disobedience may require everything from blunt communication to persuasive subtlety. The path to success can be a tightrope between communicating without sugar-coating and guiding senior leaders to draw their own conclusions. This communications-related finesse has no formula; it requires the ability to read the audience and be sensitive to someone’s frame of mind. The more finesse someone commands, the greater their ability to successfully communicate the intent and objectives of intelligent disobedience.

While many of these come naturally to some people, others must develop these skills through practice. Paying attention to the reactions of others to your actions and comments can enhance your ability to apply intelligent disobedience. Great leaders work to build these characteristics in themselves and in team members, which can enhance your ability to deliver superior outcomes.

Additional tips for expanding your leadership can be found in my book Intelligent Disobedience: The Difference Between Good and Great Leaders and my Leading with Intelligent Disobedience course on LinkedIn Learning. It’s one of over 20 courses I have on the LinkedIn Learning platform. You can access the course via this link:

Not a member of LinkedIn Learning? You’ll get to view the introduction to the course and will be given the opportunity to get a free trial which will give you access to the entire LinkedIn Learning Library of courses.