Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Catalyst - Malcolm Gladwell

I really enjoy Malcolm Gladwell's writing. I read Blink and even though I didn't really get what he was saying, I enjoyed reading the book. I've read most of The Tipping Point and several of his articles in the New Yorker, including this disturbing one about NFL players and head trauma (here). Gladwell spoke at Catalyst on leadership.

Specifically, Gladwell was asking the question about what the financial crisis taught us about leadership. He wondered out loud, with all of the financial experts and the knowledge they had of the market, how did they not see the collapse of Bear-Stearnes and Shearson Lehman. His point was that the collection of information does not necessarily lead to great leadership. He pointed to the Civil War battle of Chancellorsville. Gen. Hooker knew everything there was to know about Gen. Lee's position, his numbers, he knew more about Lee's army than Lee knew. He devised a battle plan that was perfect. He couldn't fail. He even stated that "God himself could not prevent their victory." He was so sure of the results of his maneuvering that he did not plan for what might happen if Lee might not act according to Hooker's plan. Of course, Lee did not act according to Hooker's plan and Lee defeated Hooker at Chancellorsville. The point of the story was to show us the consequences of being so sure and being overconfident based on our accumulation of information.

It should be obvious that we would assume that more information about a situation would lead to more confidence to act. But being over informed does not necessarily always give us the plan for action. Gladwell pointed to a study that showed doctors being provided with varying levels of information about a case. One would think that the more information that a doctor was given about a patient would result in a surer diagnosis. Gladwell pointed out that that was not always the case. The percentage of correct diagnoses based on levels of information stayed about the same.

That is the scary part. Gladwell pointed out that more information did not lead to correct action plans but to being more confident (which leads to over confidence).
Gladwell pointed out that incompetence annoys us. But overconfidence should scare us.

Getting to the one point that he wanted to leave us with: In crisis, we don't need bold, daring activity from our leaders. We need humility.

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