Following Orders

“The question is often asked, when some task has been assigned to you and exactly what was to be done has been defined, whether you ought to do anything contrary to instructions, if by so doing it might seem that the outcome would be more successful and more advantageous to the one who imposed the task upon you.”—Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights (I.xiii)

The minor Roman writer gives both sides of the argument. In favor of strict obedience, Gellius says that a decision presumes deliberation by “one whose business and right are concerned” as an authority. To question orders can lead to blame for the subordinate should the alternate plan fail. It may also set a dangerous precedent.  On the other hand, there are those who believe that if the potential advantages outweigh the risks then we should interpret our orders more creatively if the situation demands it.

Much of it really comes down to the “temperament and disposition” of the person in command, as Gellius puts it. Someone who is willing to delegate will allow responsible subordinates to think for themselves and not be bound by strict orders. Often it is the case that a more flexible leader will develop the potential in those he commands to act as leaders as well. By contrast the person who rules autocratically perpetuates a system of incompetence since those under him (or her) aren’t capable of intelligent decisions even if granted the opportunity to take charge.

It seems safe to say that there must be a balance between dutiful obedience and creative interpretation. Too much of either can lead to “mission failure.” For more about Aulus Gellius, see my earlier post.

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