I have always been a huge Malcolm Gladwell fan. Sure I have read the cons of his books, but if a book gets you to STOP and think, it would seem that author has indeed done the reader a great service. Malcolm spoke at Catalyst East this year on his new book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.
In David and Goliath, Gladwell sets out to explore two — just two — ideas. One: there is greatness and beauty in David-Goliath fights, at least when the underdog wins. Two: “we consistently get these kinds of conflicts wrong” by failing to realize that giants have weaknesses and underdogs can accomplish the unexpected. The contrarian in me might add a third strategic thought to go along with the book—America needs to look in the mirror.
Why? Because it’s all about being disruptive (or, as Malcolm calls it, “disagreeable”). The book is ultimately about how the underdogs who come out on top are the ones who change the rules and use new technologies to upset the status quo. Is America disrupting or being disrupted?
It is because of and not in spite of David’s size and unorthodox choice of weapon that David was able to slay the lumbering giant. In other words, Gladwell says that most people underestimate the importance of agility and speed.
David’s life is dated 1040–970 BC. The Books of Samuel, 1 Kings, and 1 Chronicles are the only sources of information on David. He is depicted as ruddy, handsome, and a righteous king; although not without faults. He was also an acclaimed warrior, musician, and poet, traditionally credited for composing many of the psalms contained in the Book of Psalms. A bad-ass, artsy, warrior with an edge—educated in the classics, but not afraid to think out of the box.
Goliath was a hardened warrior from the Philistine city of Gath. A giant of more than nine feet tall with a coat of bronze scale armor, he weighed in at 125 pounds. Goliath carried a spear that had a fifteen-pound point with a bronze javelin on his back and he wore a bronze helmet. A less than brilliant, brute in love with the status quo—which is where he gained his strength.
Gladwell suggests that Goliath, like other scientifically studied giants, might have had acromegaly. Acromegaly is a growth disorder that would have meant a pituitary tumor which could have created vision problems or restrictive sight. This may explain why Goliath had an attendant to lead him into combat with David, and maybe led him to misjudge David’s power. Goliath in the biblical story did. If you read closely, it sounds like a guy who can’t see.
The account of the battle between David and Goliath is told in 1 Samuel, chapter 17. Saul and the Israelites face the Philistines near the Valley of Elah. Twice a day for 40 days, Goliath, the champion of the Philistines, came out between the lines and challenged the Israelites to send out a champion of their own to decide the outcome in single combat, but Saul and all the Israelites were afraid. David, bringing food for his elder brothers, heard that Saul had promised to reward any man who defeated Goliath, and accepted the challenge. Saul reluctantly agreed and offered his armor, which David declined, taking only his sling and five stones from a brook.
David and Goliath confronted each other; Goliath with his armor and shield and David with his staff and sling. “The Philistine cursed David by his gods.” but David replied: “This day Jehovah will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down; and I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that God saves not with sword and spear; for the battle is God’s, and he will give you into our hand.”
David struck Goliath in the forehead with a stone from his sling. Goliath fell dead. David took Goliath’s sword and beheaded him, and the Philistines fled in terror.
David put the armor of Goliath in his own tent and took the head to Jerusalem. Saul sent Abner to bring David to him. The king asked whose son he was and David answered, “I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite.”
Rock, Paper, Scissors: Reliant K has an amazing song–“The Only Thing Worse Than Beating A Dead Horse Is Betting On One.” The band sings, “Paper, rock, and scissors. They all have their pros and cons.” The same applied in the above battle and the art of combined arms, and David knew this.
Combined arms operations dates back to antiquity, where armies would usually field a screen of skirmishers to protect their spearmen during the approach to contact. Especially in the case of the Greek hoplites however, the focus of military thinking lay almost exclusively on the heavy infantry of which Goliath was one.
In more elaborate situations, armies of various nationalities fielded different combinations of light, medium, or heavy infantry, cavalry, chariotry, camelry, elephantry, and artillery (think slings). The ancient Persian army is an excellent example of this. Combined arms in this context was how to best use the cooperating units that were variously armed with side-arms, spears, or missile weapons in order to coordinate an attack in time and space that would best disrupt and then destroy the enemy.
David understood the concept of rock, paper, scissors, and used it. Artillery (slings) vs heavy infantry; David’s sling was a devastating weapon. It was one of the most feared weapons in the ancient world. The stone projected from his sling had the stopping power equivalent to a bullet from a .45 caliber pistol. It was a serious weapon. Today we think of it as a boy’s toy, butit was far from that.
So here we had a big, lumbering, half blind guy weighed down with armor up against a young man who ran at him with a devastating weapon and a rock traveling with the stopping power of a .45 caliber handgun.
That’s not a story of an underdog is it? David has a ton of advantages in this battle that are just not obvious. That’s what has me wondering about this notion. Maybe we need to do a better job of looking at what an advantage actually is.
Gladwell substantiates the concept with numerous business case studies and research examples in his book. Most people fail to recognize the advantages a fast, nimble opponent has when he faces off against a competitor who has strength, size, and wealth. That’s exactly why nimble, upstart organizations, with their new solutions to old problems, often can best Goliaths.
Gladwell says, “We have a definition in our heads of what an advantage is — and the definition isn’t right. And what happens as a result? It means that we make mistakes. It means that we misread battles between underdogs and giants. It means that we underestimate how much freedom there can be in what looks like a disadvantage.”
David and Goliath is a classic story in the business world. The very same things that appear to make a company so formidable–its size, its resources–serve as stumbling blocks when they’re forced to respond to a situation where the rules are changing and where nimbleness, flexibility, and adaptability are better attributes. This is the story of David and Goliath, right? David had nimbleness. He changed the rules. He brought in the superiority of technology.
Gladwell does not mention the world stage or national security strategy, but what of the way America’s immense military power could not win the Vietnam War, or tame Iraq and Afghanistan?
Business owners have found that once you reach a certain point of success or a certain point of wealth, it actually can work against an organization and become a disadvantage.
Bob Lutz at General Motors was asked why GM is so big. This was even after the bailout. And he answered, “You know, it probably is too big.” There are clearly advantages of scale, but they cap out. You need to make X number of cars a year in order to be an efficient producer, but beyond that, extra size just gets in your way. What GM suffered with in terms of decision making and innovation was they were on the wrong side of this curve. Does the same apply to the United States today?
David’s sling was far more superior for the task at hand than conventional weapons like a sword and shield. Is America’s forehead as exposed as Goliath’s was? The Department of Defense has long talked of asymmetrical threats. Is America the Goliath on the world stage?
Isn’t David the American story? Think of the American Revolution. A true David and Goliath story; an upstart nation vs THE global superpower. What about the US in World War II and what happened after that? Has the United States of America become Microsoft?
If “David and Goliath” were a more strategic book, perhaps it would have to apply the David and Goliath lens to terrorism. But, Mr. Gladwell is not in the business of providing disturbing information. (Isn’t that just like America? We don’t want to talk about the 1,000 lb. gorillas in the room. Iran, China, North Korea, Terrorism, The Arab Awakening, shrinking defense spending, military forces, equipment, increased threats…and oh…I don’t know…Russia?)
People usually don’t think of the underdogs as playing fair, but might that not perfectly describe some of our most revered business leaders’ paths to innovation? If you read Walter Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs, it is clear that Jobs is the definition of disruptive and disagreeable. He changed the rules and the game. Is that what’s happening on the world’s stage today?
First, perhaps it’s time for America to act more like an underdog–perhaps we already are an underdog and simply don’t know it. Second, we need to change the rules and the game. Third, the US needs to use speed and maneuverability to surprise competitors and keep experimenting. It’s time to push the limits. This is exactly what defines successful business today. Gladwell’s David and Goliath should be required reading for anyone pursuing a military education and anyone looking to beat a few of the giants lurking in the landscape.
Malcolm ends with “the weapons of the spirit.” He points out the David and Goliath battle was fundamentally about the weapons of the spirit. It was about how the things that are in your heart or your soul or your imagination are every bit the equal of the material advantages that you’ve been given. Can we apply that to the United States today?
“David understood that with superior technology and the spirit of the lord, ‘I am not the underdog,’” Gladwell remarked, “With those two things on his side, he’s the favorite isn’t he?”.
Or…can a David become a Goliath?