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Creating Successful Leaders

In his new book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Malcolm Gladwell focuses not only on dispelling the fears attached to being an underdog, but even goes so far as to show how in many cases, being the underdog gives you an advantage. He summarizes some key points in his New Yorker article:

“David’s victory over Goliath, in the Biblical account, is held to be an anomaly,” he writes. “It was not. Davids win all the time.”

He highlights research conducted by political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft, who looked at all the major wars fought in the last two hundred years, paying close attention to the underdog of each conflict. His findings were surprising: roughly one in three wars were won by a nation that was way out of its league.

That’s a staggering stat on its own. Conventional wisdom would tell us that the underdog should never win, and when he/she does, it’s a fluke. But Arreguín-Toft’s study shows that underdogs win all the time. And that’s not even the most surprising finding.

In the David and Goliath story, David first tries on armor and a sword in preparation to face Goliath. But he’s not comfortable in heavy armor and a big sword. He’s familiar with stones, a sling, and his plain clothes. So he opts to use what he’s most used to, and we know what happens from there.

Similarly, Arreguín-Toft wondered what happened when the underdogs in his study “acknowledged their weaknesses and chose an unconventional strategy,” as Gladwell puts it. “He went back and re-analyzed his data. In those cases, David’s winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6. When underdogs chose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win.”

The Takeaway

1. It’s okay to be the underdog. Own it. Use it to your advantage. Don’t be discouraged when you feel out of your league. Everyone feels this way from time to time.

2. Underdogs win all the time. And it’s not a fluke. Think of all the successful people and businesses that started out with an idea or vision that everyone around them laughed at. There are too many to count. They were all the underdogs at one point.

3. Use what you’re comfortable with to succeed; don’t play by the giant’s rules. Be aware of your unique strengths even in the face of a daunting challenge. Don’t ever let your self-saboteur tell you that you aren’t good enough for the task. It isn’t true.


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