Today, an old, but very sound, book on corporate
management. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Winter, 1974: I arrived at
the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Belgrade,
Jugoslavija, covered with snow. I was singing there
with the Patriarch's Oktet, and I'd made it to the
service despite a blizzard. One old singer, seeing
I'd come miles in bad weather, nodded and said to
me, Dobri Vojnik! Serbian for Good
Soldier. The Slavic term Dobri Vojnik is seldom
uttered seriously. It suggests one who is
slavishly, and somewhat foolishly, devoted to duty.
The term Dobri Vojnik went international in 1921.
That year a radical Czech named Jaroslav Haek
wrote a book which became an instant classic -- a
WW-I novel titled The Good Soldier
Švejk. Hašek's masterpiece tells of
the innocent Švejk, Mr. Everyman, haled into
the army on the side of the Germans.
Švejk is a totally cooperative soldier --
filled with aggressive enthusiasm. He obeys all
orders just as they're issued, completely and
without question. Of course no army can exist when
its troops do that. Švejk just about brings
the army to its knees.
Švejk is not the only such literary hero.
Herman Melville's hero Billy Budd, (made
into a wonderful operatic figure by Benjamin
Britten) is a sailor who radiates good-hearted
cooperation. In the end, the British Navy
instinctively responds to Budd by destroying him.
Švejk, on the other hand, knows perfectly well
what a destructive force his obedience is, and he
wields it like a scalpel. In that, he echoes the
Taoist philosophy of "yield and overcome." He knows
perfectly well that you destroy your enemy by
It was obvious to me during my two years as an
enlisted man that the Army absolutely depends on
people who disobey orders. No authoritarian
organization can avoid issuing orders that're
muddled and self-defeating. Armies depend on people
who say No to authority. When
soldiers fail to do so, the result may be simple
confusion; it may be a major atrocity. God help any
lieutenant whose NCOs haven't the wits to cover his
blunders by disobeying. The old MASH series
on TV played that theme with stinging accuracy.
Think for a moment what it means to issue an order.
It is to specify an outcome, to predict a future.
But modern science makes it crystal clear that the
future cannot be predicted. Tiny imperfections in
an initial state of affairs always magnify in time.
That's why we can't predict weather in the long
term. That's why we can't predict our own futures.
And that's why any commander had better hope his
subordinates have the wits and courage to disobey.
Yet organizations tell their people to pull
together, embrace corporate goals, and support
common themes. Organizations routinely perish
because of that. Hierarchical systems are doomed
without disobedient and dissident members. So read
The Good Soldier Švejk as you try to
shape your organization. To survive, it must run on
the creative, out-of-step individualism of its
members. Disobedience is the primary survival trait
of any organization.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds