Tune in, turn on, disrupt: A lesson in the power of insubordination

It once was that climbing the corporate ranks was impossible without a healthy respect for authority. Toe the line, and you were rewarded with a promotion. It may have helped a year-end report, but for more creative growth opportunities, businesses suffered in the long run. Today’s recipe for corporate health and prosperity goes against the grain and calls for greater individual autonomy as well as limited authority among supervisors. But it’s a formula that works, and one that more companies should embrace.

Take the story of Dick Boak, one of Martin Guitar’s most creative luthiers. A crafty music lover, Boak self-taught himself instrument making in the basement of his family home when he was only 12 years old. He followed his artistic skills to study visual arts in college before dropping out and working his way around the country before fate intervened in Nazareth, Pennsylvania.

It was there, behind the Martin Guitar headquarters, that Boak was caught by a foreman while rummaging for discarded wood scraps. Boak explained himself by showing two instruments he had already built with discarded wood – which caught the eye of the head of the company, C.F. Martin III. He hired Boak immediately to build instruments for the company.

Sounds like a Cinderella story, doesn’t it? For most employees, it would: hired by the CEO to do work you love, work that is recognized and praised by those around you. Yet less than a year after this momentous event, Boak was just as quickly fired.

Martin Guitar, like so many other companies, was structured as a top-down hierarchy. The CEO made an impulsive hire, yet Boak’s direct supervisor was an engineer hired after Boak joined the company. The designer and engineer came to a disagreement over design modifications for a new banjo model: Boak believed the change would lead to structural quality issues; his supervisor disagreed, and gave a direct order to proceed with the modification. Boak, motivated by the potential cost to the company for such a change, reported the issue to the personnel manager. Boak was dismissed the following morning for the insubordinate act of going over his boss’s head.

The shock and disillusionment Boak felt after losing his dream job were amplified by the awareness that the very actions that led his supervisor to fire him were made in the best interests of his employer’s future success. Doing the right thing should never be subordinated by following orders.

Even though it meant going over the boss’s head yet again, Boak made a creative appeal to C.F. Martin III: a signed pen-and-ink drawing of Martin’s acclaimed D-28 model, with the inscription “please consider this my reapplication for employment.” Delighted with the gift, and appalled to learn of Boak’s termination, Martin re-hired Boak to a new role: producing designs for the factory gift shop, an effort that delivered a tenfold increase in sales. Boak’s career grew at Martin as he served as director of artist and public relations, developed the Signature Editions line of guitars and became historian-in-residence. He just retired from Martin in January 2018.

As for the engineer who first terminated Boak, he lost his job a few years after Boak was rehired; it seems the banjo model he worked on with Boak kept experiencing broken rims that resulted from the very design modification Boak refused to make. It created a significant quality issue for the company.

This story provides us with terrific learning. One of the most important foundational principles for business leaders dedicated to great work culture is: no single individual should have the authority to kill a good idea or to keep a bad idea alive.

Instead, a business must create a culture that inspires creativity and does not punish brilliance and irreverence. The authority of individual bosses should be limited, and companies must create a space where it is safe not to follow orders.

In the world of hierarchical management, Boak’s engineer supervisor had every authority to make a unilateral decision based on Boak’s actions. The operating rule of thumb in those environments continues to be one of “keep your mouth shut, and do what you’re told.”

If the most knowledgeable voices in a company – regardless of job title – can be systematically silenced, then an organization is designed to embrace structured ignorance. And it’s probably just a matter of time before such ignorance creates a difficult, and hopefully not fatal, business crisis.