In his latest New Yorker article, “How David Beats Goliath,” Malcolm Gladwell tells stories of how outmatched underdogs beat their much larger, more experienced competitors. He begins with the story of an inexperienced 12 year old girls basketball team that went all the way to the national championship game by running a relentless full court press every game. He moves onto the story of David slaying Goliath and cites some fascinating research by Harvard political scientist Ivan Arreguin-Toft who studied every war fought in the last 200 years that pitted strong and weak opponents against each other. On the whole, the underdogs won 28% of the time. When they recognized their weaknesses and adapted their strategies to compensate for them they won 64% of the time.
Pretty stunning, huh? Gladwell’s article got me thinking about what leaders need to learn from underdogs. Over the past seven months, as the Federal government has taken a much more active role in stimulating the economy, reviving the financial services sector and restructuring the auto industry, we’ve been regularly reminded of Richard Nixon’s observation in 1971 (and Milton Friedman’s before that) that, “We are all Keynesians now.” As we move through the downturn and into recovery, perhaps leaders need to adopt the mindset of, “We are all underdogs now.” With that in mind, here are three success rules of underdogs that can help leaders facing long odds.