Obedience? Get a robot

Back when Britain ruled the high seas, onboard discipline was a given. Rules were rules and breaches were dealt with harshly. The term ‘toeing the line’ is believed to date back to this era, with Royal Navy officers requiring barefoot seamen to stand to attention, toes lined up along the seams of the deck’s wooden planks, or else. Fast-forward centuries and suited warriors continue the tradition, with ‘insubordination’ bringing demotion, demonising or dismissal instead of the lash. “There almost always is some kind of repercussion for non-compliance and most people imagine they’ll be rewarded for following orders,” says Margaret Heffernan, entrepreneur and author of Willful Blindness. “That’s why it proved so easy to get (people) who, in other circumstances were decent, ethical individuals, to sell sub-prime mortgages and other kinds of debt to people whom they knew could not afford it.” Interestingly, the military has given the issue of obedience far deeper scrutiny than the business world, she adds, driven by more than horrific case studies such as the Third Reich and My Lai massacre. “The Army is also crucially aware that what goes on in the field is too complex and changes too quickly and unpredictably for any one leader to be able to anticipate or even keep up with events,” Heffernan says. With the increasing business premium being placed on innovation and diversity, getting people to question and speak up becomes a pressing leadership challenge – even for leaders themselves. “If I had to pick one skill for the majority of leaders I work with to improve, it would be assertiveness,” says leadership consultant, Scott Edinger. “Those who don’t assert themselves can be keeping ideas hidden and useless when they don’t speak up or speak too softly.” Assertiveness complements a wide range of critical leadership skills, he says, including the ability to foster innovation. As former military leader, Fred Krawchuk, told Heffernan: “Obedience is just too simple. In a highly complex situation, anything too simple doesn’t work. And it is a misservice to sit back and wait to be told what to do.”

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