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It was 1985.

I was about halfway through an initiative to drive productivity improvement in our trucking terminals.  I was one of four on a team that was traveling to each of the major operations, spending a week at each.  We paired up, working 8 hours on 8 hours off to observe and assess the 24 hour operation, sleeping in the bunks in the facilities where available.  Each week culminated in an operations improvement report to management.

We did this from June to August I think.  It was grueling.

That was before I knew much about how organizations function.  I mean really function; you know, the social system and the political dynamics and the strategy and the budgeting …

I learned a lot that spring/summer!

There was one lesson in particular that is active and still fresh and relevant for me; I often use it; to help myself, and in coaching others.

It was late one night (or early one morning, hell I don’t know!) and I was upset over a change in plans; I don’t remember specifically what; I just remember openly sharing my exasperation with the manager of the facility.  He was a seasoned, experienced leader; he had seen it all, and then some.

At one point, as I was applying my creativity in an ill-conceived attempt to figure out how not to follow the new directive, he interrupted me mid-sentence —

“John; you have every right to disagree; you don’t have a right to disobey.”

Huh?

He went on to speak of the exceptional situations — when the direction would be unsafe for me or others; when the direction was clearly not ethical, or immoral; or when the action would in fact be illegal.  In these cases, I not only have the right to disagree, I have the right — and responsibility — to disobey.

In the absence of those, I don’t.

Oh boy.

I heard an internal thud; the sound of righteous indignation hitting managerial prerogative.  And I think I felt a twitch in an OD muscle that I didn’t know I had.

It is hard to believe that that was twenty-seven years ago!  I am sooooo thankful for that lesson now … once I internalized, and then applied in practice, eventually, the stress level of such situations diminished.  And it led to numerous follow on lessons —

  • Pick my battles; take the long view
  • Some things I can’t control; but can I influence?
  • Craft my argument, with data and facts
  • Make my case in a compelling fashion
  • Take my hits; the pain is temporary
  • Seek to understand even while I strive to be understood.  I very well may not have the information that the decision maker has …
  • And, perhaps most importantly, let things play out.  If the decision is a good one, great; I will have learned something.  If the decision is not a good one, it will undoubtedly become apparent, and the leaders will adjust; and the organization will adjust.  And, perhaps, everyone will learn.

The genesis was the extraordinarily simple and straightforward lesson from a conversation on a trucking dock in the middle of the night —

Disagree?  Okay, fine.

Don’t Disobey.

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