What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Guide Dogs To protect themselves and their owner, guide dogs are trained to be 'intelligently disobedient'. Entrepreneurs should learn the same skill.

By Ira Chaleff

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


Successful entrepreneurs are a rich composite of obedience and disobedience to market trends. They are savvy enough to ride existing waves and daring enough to find places where others have not yet gone.

My work on Intelligent Disobedience starts more narrowly than where the entrepreneur goes with it, but it recognizes groundbreaking entrepreneurship as its pinnacle expression. Let's start with the foundation.

Intelligent Disobedience is a term used in guide-dog training. You may be wondering: What can that possibly have to do with entrepreneurship?

A dog, bred or chosen for its temperament and alertness, is raised by a family for more than a year to socialize it, and teach it the commands it will need to obey and guide a visually impaired person. Then the dog graduates to a higher level trainer, who teaches it Intelligent Disobedience. What is that? Think about it for a moment.

If a dog receives a command that, if executed, would harm the team of human and dog, it must not obey. For example, if the daily walk to the train station is today impassable because of construction or because of wires and trees that were downed by a storm, obeying the usual command to go forward could have nasty results. By not obeying, the dog prevents falls, bruises or even electrocution.

But is that enough? The human, who cannot see the surrounding obstacles, can't just be left standing there. He must be guided to the original goal or at least to safety. Now, the dog has to improvise and not in any old way. It must improvise in a way that doesn't place the human into harm's way.

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The dog is sighted and agile. It could easily slip under a downed branch or wire, or leap over an open ditch. The human can't. The dog, now assuming the creative leadership of the team, needs to find a path they can both successfully use to get safely to the goal.

How many skills of an entrepreneur did the dog just display? Let's distill these into a simple template of entrepreneurship.

  1. Know the goal.
  2. Develop a plan for achieving the goal.
  3. Be clear on whom your plan is serving and what they need from you.
  4. Dry run the plan, and work out the kinks.
  5. Launch the enterprise.
  6. Be prepared for unexpected roadblocks and dangers.
  7. Be agile in finding ways around these.
  8. Make sure your responses work for both your company and your clients.
  9. Based on the trust engendered, be willing to explore new paths.
  10. Make sure your team knows when to obey established procedure and when to break rules that don't fit shifting terrain.

It is well-known that the entrepreneur's advantage is the ability to learn and adapt more quickly than established entities. As you grow, maintain that advantage by valuing Intelligent Disobedience.

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We can turn once more to the guide dog as a metaphor for how to do this.

Consistency of praise is needed for both appropriate obedience and appropriate disobedience. With consistent reinforcement the dog develops an increasingly sophisticated capacity for solving complex problems. This is easily destroyed by sending inconsistent messages that leave the dog confused and uncertain. If that occurs, fitness for the job is lost, and the dog is dropped from the guide dog program.

If you are the entrepreneur, it is your company. So if you wake up grumpy, you may feel entitled to express displeasure today for what you expressed approval yesterday. You may get away with a little bit of this. Steve Jobs apparently got away with a lot of this. You're not Steve Jobs though. When a member of your team diverges from a usual procedure with well thought out reasons, don't blast them because you would have made a different call. All you will achieve is obedience. That is not the stuff of great entrepreneurial cultures.

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Challenge your own tendency to become an authority figure, who expects obedience. When your people challenge your thinking on a subject, resist defensiveness, and adopt a genuinely curious attitude about what they are saying. Realize that your own sight may be impaired and that they, like the guide dog, are helping you avoid pitfalls you do not see, and discover new paths that lead to your goals.

In its highest expression, Intelligent Disobedience is the refusal to allow our imagination to be locked into existing thought patterns. Make it a core value in your culture, and entrepreneurship will continue to thrive.

Ira Chaleff

Founder and president of Executive Coaching & Consulting Associates

Ira Chaleff is the best-selling author of The Courageous Follower and Intelligent Disobedience, as well as the founder of the International Leadership Association’s Followership Learning Community and a member of the ILA board of directors. He is a frequent speaker and workshop presenter on Courageous Followership, and is adjunct faculty at Georgetown University.

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