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
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
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
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
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
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