Should a Leader Challenge or Disobey Orders from Higher Authorities?

Leadership is often described as the art of influencing others to achieve a common goal. Leaders are expected to have great vision, superb communication skills, and impeccable execution abilities. However, even the greatest leaders find themselves under the authority of someone else. So, what happens when a leader is given an order that conflicts with their personal values or vision? Should they challenge or even disobey the order? In this article, we will explore this controversial topic, examine the pros and cons, and ultimately help you decide what’s best for you as a leader.

First a Story:

In the highly-acclaimed series “Band of Brothers”, there is a scene where Major Dick WInters is ordered by his regiment commander to run a night mission. The mission would be the second one of its kind. The first mission resulted in the death of one of Winters’ soldiers. While the first mission was deemed a success in spite of the casualty, the second one would serve no good, at least that is what Winters believed. And given that it was a high risk, night time operation, the risk of more casualties was great.

Winters decides to covertly disregard the order. He assembles his troops and says (I am paraphrasing) “We have been ordered to run a second mission. It will be set up the same as last night. We will just launch it one hour later. Now I want you all to go to bed, get a FULL night’s sleep. Then report to me in the morning that the mission was complete.” The men understood what Winters was saying.

Without saying ‘I am disobeying the commander’s orders’ he instead said ‘we have a mission. You will sleep through the night and let me know how it went.’ The only thing missing was the wink wink, nod nod. The men knew what he was doing. He was sparing them from risk and injury.

Image “Band of Brothers” – courtesy HBO

The Importance of Loyalty:

In many organizations, loyalty is highly valued. Leaders are expected to be loyal to their team, to their stakeholders, and most importantly, to their higher-ups. Loyalty is regarded as a key component of leadership, as it enables the leader to gain the trust of their followers and the organization.

However, loyalty has its limits. If a leader is given an order that goes against their values or vision, loyalty to their team and the organization may require that they challenge or disobey the order. In the words of Colin Powell, “loyalty means giving me your honest opinion, whether you think I’ll like it or not”.

The Risks of Disobedience:

Challenging or disobeying an order from a higher authority is not without its risks. It can lead to disciplinary action, career damage, or even termination. Leaders must carefully consider the consequences before taking such a step.

Disobeying an order can also create tension with the higher authority, damage the leader’s reputation, and harm the team’s morale. It’s essential to remember that challenging or disobeying an order is a high-risk, high-reward decision that requires careful deliberation.

The Importance of Personal Values:

As a leader, it’s crucial to know your personal values and how they align with the organization’s values. If there is a conflict between your personal values and the organization’s values, you may need to challenge or disobey an order.

For example, if you are working for a pharmaceutical company, and you are asked to market a drug that has harmful side effects, you may need to challenge the order, and communicate your underlying concerns to your superiors. In such a situation, a leader who challenges the order is upholding not only their personal values but also the values of the organization.

The Value of Negotiation:

As a leader, your first approach should be to negotiate with your superiors. It’s crucial to explain your perspective, concerns, and rationale for not following the order. Negotiation provides an opportunity to reach a compromise, find common ground, and preserve the relationship with your higher authority. This approach could prevent unnecessary conflict, and by working collaboratively, the team can achieve their goals.

The Final Decision:

In the end, it’s up to the leader to decide whether to challenge or disobey an order from higher authorities. It’s essential to consider the organization’s values, team dynamics, personal values, and possible consequences before taking such a step.

Leaders must be confident in their values, trust their instincts, and stay true to themselves. Remember, leaders are accountable not only to their higher-ups and their team members but also to themselves.


As we have seen, challenging or disobeying an order from higher authorities is a complicated and risky decision that requires careful consideration. As a leader, it’s crucial to know your personal values, understand the organization’s values, and communicate effectively with your superiors.

Negotiation is often a valuable tool in preventing unnecessary conflict and finding a compromise that aligns with everyone’s goals. However, if there is a conflict between your personal values and those of the organization, challenging or disobeying an order may be necessary. In the end, a leader must stay true to themselves and be accountable for their decision.

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