According to Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success, what are the key lessons for leadership?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 study of the factors that lead to success, Outliers: The Story of Success, dissects the variables that he has determined are the keys to superior accomplishments in business, sports, the arts, and virtually every profession that comes to mind.  Gladwell’s thesis revolves around his conclusion that natural-born talent will only take somebody so far, and that hard work and cultural factors determine whether even the most talented individuals reach the heights of their abilities.  The first factor Gladwell discusses in Part I of his book is what he (and others) call “the Matthew Effect,” for the Biblical passage from the Book of Matthew that reads:

“For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance.   But from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”

The relevance of this passage from the Bible is its suggestion that ultimate success is cumulative in nature.  Success breeds success.  The former Soviet Army had as a core of its military doctrine the resupply not of those units that needed it to survive, but the resupply of those units that were successfully breaching the enemy’s (NATO) defenses.  In other words, use your resources to push successful efforts to the next level, not to those efforts that are proving ineffective.  Within the realm of everyday life, Gladwell applies the Matthew Effect to his discussion of the secrets of success:

 “It is those who are successful . . . who are most likely to be given the kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success.  It’s the rich who get the biggest tax breaks.  It’s the best students who get the best teaching and most attention.  And it’s the biggest nine- and ten-year-olds who get the most coaching and practice.  Success is the result of what sociologists like to call ‘accumulative advantage’.”

In his next chapter, Gladwell focuses on the role of hard work in buttressing one’s natural abilities.  Gladwell is an advocate of the application of the so-called “Ten-Thousand Hour Rule.”  This rule, the result of studies into the efforts required of prominent individuals who have risen to the top of their respective endeavors, posits that achievement of one’s highest goals requires that many hours of practice or work.  As the author writes regarding the researchers who first developed this rule:

“Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That's it. And what's more, the people at the very top don't work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.

"The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.”

Using Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as an example, Gladwell notes:

“Even Mozart – the greatest musical prodigy of all time – couldn’t hit his stride until he had his ten thousand hours in.  Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good.  It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”

To this, one could logically add an observation attributed to Thomas Edison that he had not failed despite numerous unsuccessful efforts at developing the incandescent light bulb; he had merely discovered many ways that wouldn’t work. 

The second main argument Gladwell advances involves cultural factors that play a role in the attainment of success.  Part II of his book, titled “Legacy,” includes his politically incorrect conclusion that cultures differ around the world and that our reluctance to suggest that some are more conducive to success in specific areas than others works to our detriment.  Discussing the experience of Korean pilots who were crashing their aircraft at a statistically improbable rate relative to the experiences of other nations’ pilots flying the same model aircraft, Gladwell applied what is known as the Hofstede Model, named the German social psychologist who developed a system for assessing the multitude of cultural and psychological variables that distinguish countries from each other.  Gladwell’s application of this model is described in the following passage:

“In 1994, when Boeing first published safety data showing a clear correlation between a country’s plane crashes and its scores on Hofstede’s Dimensions, the company’s researchers practically tied themselves in knots trying not to cause offense.  ‘We’re not saying there’s anything here, but we think there’s something there’ is how Boeing’s chief engineer for airplane safety put it.  Why are we so squeamish?  Why is the fact that each of us comes from a culture with its own distinctive mix of strengths and weaknesses, tendencies and predispositions, so difficult to acknowledge?  Who we are cannot be separated from where we’re from – and when we ignore that fact, planes crash.”

Gladwell’s use of this example illuminates what he views as the enormous influence of cultural distinctions in determining success rates.  His research has even extended to the issue of date of birth.  Gladwell has determined that those born in the month of January are statistically far more likely to achieve high levels of success than those born in the final months of the calendar year.  Additionally, he incorporates into this discussion the emotions and the role they can play.  Noting the correlation between the psychological enjoyment one derives from one’s work, especially work that is intellectually challenging, and levels of success, he has arrived at the following conclusion:

“Those three things – autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward – are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.  It is not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between nine and five.  It’s whether our work fulfills us. . .[T]here is complexity, autonomy, and a relationship between effort and reward in doing creative work, and that’s worth more to most of us than money.”

Gladwell is not without his critics, as the attached link to a recent article indicates, but his emphasis on the role of hard work, culture and psychological motivations is certainly worthy of consideration.

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