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Full Marks For Gladwell’s Lecture

Sunday, April 8, 2012

You can love him. You can hate him. But you can’t ignore him. I have discovered this much about Malcolm Gladwell, the 49-year-old Canadian journalist, Time Magazines ‘100 Most Influential People,’ Newsweek’s ‘top ten new thought leaders of the decade’ and author of four bestselling books (notably The Tipping Point and Outlier).


Here recently at the invitation of the Arthur Lok Jack Graduate School of Business as part of its distinguished leadership series, Gladwell’s lecture on ‘What Makes the Great Ones Great’ gets full marks for perfect commentary and timing on our local political scene.


Those attending the lecture must have hoped for an instant formula for “greatness” especially after coughing up a thousand US dollars (to last week’s critics. No, I did not pay but I am doing the work to bring you the lecture for free). What the audience got instead was a cautionary tale on what brings the great people crashing down if not to hell, to earth. Thinks of former prime ministers Patrick Manning and Basdeo Panday, Jack Warner, George Nicholas to name a few.


The Gladwell lecture was eerily prescient. It was delivered almost simultaneously as the power tugs in the PP Government exposed fissures in the frail alliance between UNC and COP. The details of this latest spat is (played out like a bull fight in the media ring for a public that is easily diverted by spectator sport) not as interesting as the fact that Gladwell’s lecture is applicable to anyone in power.


This slightly built man of mixed Jamaican and British parentage with his signature afro, speaking with an unexpectedly authoritative and somewhat hypnotic voice began: “I was having a conversation with a friend on Wall Street. She said all the hedge fund and powerful traders are behaving in exactly the same way as if the financial crisis of ’07 and ’08 hadn’t happened.



It is a missed opportunity to evaluate leadership, and ask how “intelligent, educated, brilliant, sophisticated politicians, business and management professionals, the people who run our institutions, who are good at what they do, created a global financial meltdown.”


That was a lost opportunity, he said. We, in T&T understand lost opportunities only too well. The rest of Gladwell’s lecture sets about getting us to understand how and why “greatness” can, so we can “prevent future failure.” Gladwell centres his lecture around the story of the battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, during the American Civil War led by two great military leaders: General Robert Lee in the South and General Joseph Hooker in the North.


The two armies—north and south—were dug in behind the Rappahannock River. The capitals of the warring capitals, Washington in the North and Richmond in the South are a day’s journeys within one another. In the South was the leader, General Robert Lee, who Gladwell says was “the most brilliant strategic leader America has ever had”.



Having refused president Abraham Lincoln the command of the Yankees in the North, he instead followed his breakaway Southern state of Virginia. Lee was a shrewd tactician and battlefield commander who had already won four battles against larger Northern Union armies. He was indomitable.


In the North, Gladwell tells us, the troops are in rough shape. They lost four battles to Lee. They are demoralised and debilitated by small pox and other diseases. President Abraham Lincoln is increasingly concerned and replaces General Ambrose Burside with the charismatic Gen Joseph Hookerto head the Yankees.


The Rappahannock River, Gladwell tells us, was the North’s last line of defence and all that stands between General Robert Lee and Washington DC. The two demoralised groups just sit and stare one another across the river. Just stare and stare and occasionally exchange coffee and tobacco.


But in the South things are not so good with General Lee. He is suffering from heart disease. His recent battles with the North cost him 50,000 men. He is running out of money and rations. His troops are in rough shape. The North starts to look good with the arrival of the new general known as “fighting Joe”.



Gladwell says, “If Hooker walked into the room now everyone would stop and stare. Tall, square jawed, blue eyed, barrel chested, a personification of brilliance and daring charisma.”


Hooker revolutionises his army. He feeds them properly with fresh meat, bread and vegetables. He pays them well. He sets up an intelligence unit, the first of any modern army, with brilliant analysts, sends off a hot air balloon to the South to report on encampment.



He sets up spies to give him data. He encodes and decodes mail. Hooker soon knows more about Lee’s army than Lee himself does. He has an overwhelming numerical advantage, with 134,000 troops more than double to that of Lee’s 60,000 men.


Hooker divides his troops into three equal groups and outflanks Lee in a pincer. On the eve of the battle, General Hooker with his ‘tall square jawed,  blue eyed, barrel chested” self standing in the clearing of a forest thunders to his men: “May God have mercy on Lee because I have none. Our plan is perfect.”


The supremely overconfident Hooker commands his soldiers into a defensive position near Chancellorsville and simply waits for Lee’s men to surrender. Over the next crucial hours and days, several of Hooker’s men report on some “activity” by Lee’s men.


Hooker dismisses them summarily. By the time the third warning comes Hooker would not even see his concerned soldier. On May 2, Hooker was in the midst of a barbeque, leaning against a pillar when it was hit by a cannonball. It was the beginning of the end. Hooker’s forces were forced to retreat. This was undoubtedly Lee’s most outstanding victory and Hooker’s ‘grievous’ defeat.


What was Gladwell’s ultimate lesson? What did “leaders” and those avid to know “What Makes the Great Ones Great” learn at the end of the lecture? This: That even with all the advantages in the world, overconfidence and arrogance can lose you the battle. But what makes the great ones great?


The ability not to be overwhelmed by power. To be able to see yourself clearly, at all times, to never ever forget the essential fragility of what it is to be human. And if you want a single word for truly great people, Malcolm Gladwell offers it up.


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