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The Alchemy of Leadership Blog

Little Guys 1 – Big Guys 0


David & Goliath is Malcolm Gladwell’s fifth book.  His previous works include the well-known The Tipping Point, about small changes which have a disproportionate and unexpected impact.

In this book, subtitled ‘Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants’, he sets out to challenge our assumption that power and strength stack the odds in favour of victory.  He does a pretty good job, presenting us with a variety of stories where the little guy beats the big guy, and telling us why.  Junior basketball coaching.  Lawrence of Arabia.  School class sizes.  Beating cancer.  The US civil rights movement.  And, of course the ‘title track’, the story of David and Goliath itself.  In each case, the author confronts us with evidence that resources do not equate to victory.  He goes further: in many cases, the result is failure.

Gladwell highlights research into wars between a large country and a much smaller one (a tenth the size).  If both sides fight conventionally, the larger country usually wins, as you’d expect.  Interestingly, the smaller, weaker country still wins over a quarter of the time.  And if the ‘weakling’ fights an unconventional or guerrilla war, it actually wins most of the contests – nearly two-thirds of them, in fact.  By switching tactics, the little guy turns out to have the upper hand.

So, encouragingly, brains can beat brawn.  In fact, they usually do.  What changes could you make in your life – business, sport or elsewhere – to start beating the big guy?  Alternatively, if you’re already the big guy, what should you be worrying about – rather more than you already are?  Being the big guy is all about exercising and exploiting power.  Being the little guy is about finding ways to work around that power, to nullify its reach and negate its impact.  Innovate or lose.

© Patrick Macdonald 2015

This book review is adapted from a longer one I guest-posted recently on Jeremy Marshall’s blog.

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