Intelligent Disobedience

Samir Mardolker explains the concept of Intelligent Disobedience and how one can instill this sense among people in positions of authority

I have been living in Singapore since 2007. For those who have lived here or visited the city, you will agree that the sense of order and discipline is exemplary. In particular, when we compare and contrast with most other cities in the region, we may look at Singapore in awe.

Singapore’s strong visionary and future-focused leadership with a disciplined lawabiding population has ensured that there is order in the city. This is important because the city is just too small to afford a mistake. For instance, any mismanagement of the Covid crisis would have easily wiped out the 5 million people who live here. Hence the city ensured that strict social distancing norms were imposed and well respected and complied by all. Everyone ‘obeyed’ and simply followed what they were told to and that’s how the city combated Covid. A visionary leadership that inspires obedience from the population is the underlying driver of success of Singapore.

There are inspiring examples of well governed cities in India as well. Take for instance Nandurbar. It’s a small 1.6 million town in Maharashtra in India and they managed to control the spread of Covid with almost the same rigour as Singapore with infrastructure that was built very quickly during the pandemic. The success did not come from top-down driven vision but bottom-up initiatives. It is not an example of obedience but that of intelligent disobedience by the district collector Dr Rajendra Bharud. Here is what he did:

  • Did not let his guard down after the first wave of Covid subsided. Instead realised that the second wave may hit anytime and rallied to build more infrastructure at a time Singapore’s strong visionary and future-focused leadership with a disciplined and law-abiding population has ensured that there is order in the city when rest of the cities were dismantling temporary hospitals as per the guidelines issued by the authorities. He intelligently disobeyed.
  • Dr Bharud managed to install oxygen plants by using whatever resources he had together with corporate support despite not having any such mandate from higher ups to do so. This was a great example of how one individual from the civil services managed to get past rules, break the red tape (intelligently disobey) and drive bottom up leadership to ensure that his town was safe. While Dr Bharud’s motivations may have been intrinsic, the question we should ask is how do we instill this sense of intelligent disobedience among people in responsible positions? Or for that, matter in key positions within your business? It all starts from how we include some of below in the natural selection and appointment process:
  • Identify individuals who are capable of intelligently disobeying. They are usually irrationally passionate and would have displayed this trait sometime in their life even in early childhood.
  • Keep to small team sizes (read fewer protocols) and have these ‘intelligently disobedient’ members managed by leaders who are good at managing those who don’t want to be managed.
  • Provide an environment for them to succeed: Fairness over being politically correct, learning over knowledge, heart over mind, strategy led by personal beliefs (aligned with corporate vision)’
  • Empower the individuals. True empowerment is not about being generous or flexible in protocol – rather, inspiring that a protocol is merely a guideline and in dire situations, it is better to ask for forgiveness than permission

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