Malcom Gladwell’s new book David and Goliath has renewed our enthusiasm for the underdog, the misfit, the one whose gifts don’t suggest any hint of possible success. As Gladwell says about David, he was the competitor who “shouldn’t have won.”
“Everyone loves an underdog,” says Anderson Cooper in his 60 Minutes introduction to Gladwell’s segment on The Power of the Underdog. “A tale about a little guy who takes on the establishment favorite.” Continues Cooper. “Can a disadvantage, a weakness, actually lead to a hidden strength?”
Immediately, we’re all hooked. This story of David’s weaknesses actually being misunderstood as source of great strength promises us that a fount of eternal possibility does exist. If David can find a porthole through to succeed against overwhelming odds then possibly, so can we.
It’s a story of hope for the misfit in all of us.
But Anderson Cooper’s statement is not true. Everyone does not love an underdog. And one person in particular absolutely loathes an underdog. That person is Goliath.
Culturally, we’ve never looked objectively at the other side of the story. Goliath simply represents the foil for our hero. Our storytelling has never ascribed true depth and dimension to Goliath’s character. We’ve never understood his side of the story.
Why should we care about Goliath?
Not learning about Goliath limits our ability to benefit fully from this fable. And that matters because for every David we celebrate, there exists a Goliath. In every community, business, and marketplace there are Davids and there are Goliaths among us. And, unlike the Biblical story, these Goliaths are not killed in battle, they live on, and in many cases, they cause mayhem.
In 1994, figure-skating contender Nancy Kerrigan was stabbed before the U.S. Figure Skating Championships by the former boyfriend of her competitor, Tonya Harding.
In countless instances of workplace violence, employees passed over for a promotion have returned to their place of work and taken the lives of their managers and coworkers.
According to ESPN, during the 1982 World Cup in a match between France and Kuwait, the entire Kuwaiti team refused to honor a goal scored by France. Prince Fahid, the Kuwaiti FA president threatened to remove his team from the competition until the referee disallowed the goal.
Essentially, the Goliaths—those who feel they are entitled to win—are here among us and the more we try to ignore them, the more they disrupt our lives.
In effect, when Goliath is unseated, he experiences a massive trauma. It is a moment of overwhelming disillusion and disturbance. Remember, David “shouldn’t have won.”
Psychologically, these grieving warriors might wish they could die at their moment of defeat, as Biblical Goliath did. But, the real-world Goliaths only grow bitter. They infect our workplaces, our sports competitions, our social communities.
What does it feel like when the competitor who shouldn’t have won actually does? How does this disrupt our workplaces? I recently read a quote from Mike Meyers that is very instructional in this instance. He said, “Every villain is the hero of his own story.”
There’s a righteousness to that sentiment, which is entwined with entitlement in the case of Goliath. That combination is very powerful.
Goliath’s version of the story could teach us something important about disruptive innovation—about the long-term effects of continuous change management practices inside organizations. What is really happening behind the scenes during these power shifts?
For every David who succeeds, a Goliath, someone who felt entitled to that power, is born. And, in our world of rapid change where giants are felled daily by the young upstart with a new vision and new technology, there are many traumatized giants walking among us.
Maybe it’s time for us to learn something about them.