Being a Rebel Leader: Disciplined Disobedience in the Army

First off, no, this is not a discussion on the merits of leaders within the Rebel Alliance in the Star Wars universe, though if it were, I’d have to say that the Rebel leadership had very few merits and we should probably not emulate their chaos-based approach to warfare.

What’s I’d like to talk about is disruptive thinking in the Army, and I’ll lead off with this:

“Disciplined disobedience to achieve the higher purpose.” 
– GEN Mark Milley, Army Chief of Staff, 2015

In all large organizations, there is a severe temptation to follow by-the-book procedure. And this for the simple reason that when you’ve got just around one million people in your organization – as in the case of the U.S. Army – it’s a lot safer and efficient for everyone to be on the same page. In our case, we have doctrine, which is the fundamental building block of how we think and operate in the Army. Doctrine offers us our left and right limits in which to operate; provides a common language; and ensures that the organization operates uniformly. It even provides the Army definition of leadership and leadership principles; all in one handy twenty-six page document. And yet in that discussion of Army leadership, there is not one mention of willful disobedience – save for when not following orders that are unlawful or immoral.

So what does it mean to exercise disciplined disobedience, as Milley calls it? Harvard Professor Francesca Gino has written extensively on what she calls “rebel leadership” in organizations: “When I think of rebels, I think of people who break rules to explore new ideas and create positive change,” she says. So it’s not that these leaders are breaking the rules and being detrimental to their organization; rather, they are always looking for new ways of doing things, refusing to accept “that’s the way we’ve always done it” as an answer, and constantly innovating. By the way, read her eight principles of rebel leadership in the link above; they are excellent.

Now, the Army is a massive institution with a very important mission: to protect the United States. Lives depend on leaders making the right decisions. So should we as leaders diverge from our doctrine and think up new ways of doing things?

Yes and no. First off, there are some things that you just shouldn’t diverge from or change. Procedural things, like the 9-line medical evacuation formula or calling for artillery fire. These processes are put in place to ensure that communication is streamlined for maximum efficiency. Diverging from these processes can cost lives.

Now, lets take something like battle drills. Are these scripts for absolute victory every time? Not at all – they merely combine best practices (flanking, infiltration tactics, suppressive fire, obscuration, etc) gathered over the last century or so of combat in order to provide the leader with a baseline from which to operate. One can and should (using our good ol’ METT-TC) diverge from battle drills should variables change. Strict adherence to the letter of the law in these cases will get people killed. And that has always been the case throughout history. The British Royal Navy adhered so much to strict line of battle principles that they were never able to gain a victory over a near-peer force until 1782 when Admiral George Rodney broke from doctrine and defeated the French fleet at the Battle of the Saintes. Tactical leadership requires innovation and ingenuity and some elements of disciplined disobedience: operating within the commander’s intent but outside the norms of Army doctrine.

Ok, so, how about everything else? We all know that leadership doesn’t begin and end on the battlefield. In fact, often the most effective moments of leadership are the common ones in day-to-day life. And operating within Milley’s guidance and the examples provided by Professor Gino, there are a myriad of things that one can do as a leader to make subversive yet positive changes to an organization. After I took command, I examined the number of meetings the company was having and eliminated or consolidated them down to the bare minimum needed to keep communication flowing, even though they were meetings that people said “had to be held.” They really didn’t. Everyone hates meetings, so this not only made the organization more efficient but also raised morale. Win-win.

You can also be a little more subversive and can enter the gray area that characterizes disciplined disobedience. Take taskings from higher, for example. All units get them, there are always too many, and sometimes you feel like you’re drowning under the pile of them. We all have limited time and limited resources. So by attempting to do everything, we will necessarily be less effective at our priorities. My rule of thumb is to gauge the tasking by what line of effort it falls under, and if it’s not in my top three – and if it by ignoring it or missing it I do not put undue stress or more work on my subordinates – then I drop it to the bottom of my priority list. It’s not literally disobeying an order, it’s prioritizing effectively according to the resources available.

Disciplined disobedience needs to be explored more as a theme within the Army, because it has obvious pitfalls if it goes awry or if people misinterpret it to mean “disobey all orders.” Discipline is a fundamental part of the Army and we still have to be mindful of it. Therefore, this concept needs to be a discussion between leaders. It should be held at the lowest levels of the force and should be championed by mid-level leaders who can use it as an opportunity to encourage this kind of thinking rather than stifle it. In order to maximize resources, retain and promote talented leaders, and gain an edge over our adversaries, we need to build rebel leaders.

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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.

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