Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Gladwell - David and Goliath

I’ve read all of Malcolm Gladwell’s books so jumped into another - David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (2013). While the premise of the book was appealing, it wasn’t new and didn’t reflect the counter-intuitive sensibility that Gladwell’s earlier books offered. However, the premise, that little guys can succeed if they don’t succumb to playing the game the “big guys” do, is one that those interested in empowering leadership will want to support.

The book started by reinterpreting the Biblical story of David and Goliath. Instead of the threatening Goliath that is typically conjured in our imaginations, Gladwell’s Goliath is a lumbering figure, burdened with confining armor, and led by hand because his vision is so poor he can’t find his own way. Goliath the giant is not only disadvantaged by his size and awkwardness but faced a formidable opponent in David, the youthful and excellent marksman with a sling-shot capable of piercing a scull as effectively as a bullet. Goliath didn’t have a chance as David approached him in the valley between the armies of the Philistines and Israelites!

Gladwell’s retelling of David and Goliath, and several other examples throughout history, proposed that many of the things that appear to make others strong may actually be points of weakness. This reality was frighteningly confirmed by the political scientist Ivan Arreguin-Toft who analyzed warfare between big and little states and found that, when weaker sides fight with unconventional tactics, the weaker parties prevailed in approximately 2/3 of the conflicts. He cited T.E. Lawrence (the subject of Lawrence in Arabia that I recently read) as one example among many where the weaker party won by using unconventional tactics.

Gladwell’s thesis partially relied on the “inverted U” principle, one that suggested that strategies that work in one setting might not work in another. Applied to school performance, some educators believe that lower class size results in improved student success. However, he cited research suggesting that, while school performance improves as class size goes down to the mid-20s, it actually declines if class size falls below the 20 students to 1 teacher ratio. At the university level, the common belief that student performance improves in highly select institutions is contradicted by the fact that strong performers (above average) actually have less positive experiences in elite universities rather than in places where good performers are allowed to blossom among other students of similar ability and motivation.

The other important principle that Gladwell advocated through explanation of cases all the way from Londoners’ survival during the WWII Nazi Blitz to the success of entrepreneurs with learning disabilities to U.S. civil rights advocates’ defeat of Southern resistance in the 1950s and 1960s was that, for many individuals, facing and conquering a challenge resulted in greater strength, creativity, hard work, and exhilaration in tackling other challenges. A quote that captured the idea is “Courage is what you earn when you’ve been through the tough times and you discover they aren’t so tough after all.”

All in all, the “take away” lessons from Gladwell’s David and Goliath were; a) what appears as strength may be a weakness ready to be exploited, b) an effective strategy in one setting could be useless in another (or, more is not always better), and c) being the underdog can cultivate strength that will make you a champion in other circumstances. Cap these three off with d) the fact that the abuse of power by people with apparent superior power can lead to the demise of their legitimacy as well as foster greater defiance, and we have a recipe for a very different kind of world than one controlled by Goliaths.

As other reviews I’ve read in The Independent, NY Times, New Republic, and Wall Street Journal indicate, the lessons Gladwell illuminates are not new and they actually reflect perspectives that many of his readers already embrace. Gladwell’s trick is spinning the stories so readers see themselves as championing unconventional views while selling one more book for Gladwell and his publishers.


Amye said...
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Amye said...

Hi Denny,
Hope you're doing well, and thank you for sharing. I was interested in this new Gladwell book and appreciate your insights.
I'm curious - how do you think the principles outlined in this book overlay with the StrengthsFinder- type positive psychology approach? References are made to the "shadow side" of strengths, meaning that a strength taken to extreme can become negative. I guess I'm not yet making a connection between that concept and the concept of building strength as an "underdog"...

Denny Roberts said...

Amye - Aren't "strengths" different than power? Gladwell is critiquing power (over others) and making the point that we don't have to succumb to intimidation if we begin to tap our own capability through unconventional resistance. The most important issue is staying aware of the use of our strengths for positive benefit rather than exploiting strength in ways that will hurt others.

Shakir said...
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Shakir said...

Gladwell is sure a great storyteller. One problem I've had with him though is his picking an example and generalizing it greatly, especially in Outliers.

Your review and notes on David and Goliath makes me want to pick it up, though.