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David and Goliath

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

Susan Paddock
March 25, 2022

This is my third column on books that may not appear on traditional public administration reading lists.

Readers may be familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point, and perhaps Outliers. I like Gladwell as an author because he includes both anecdotal and quantitative data in his books.

In David and Goliath, Gladwell discusses how people confront power—both powerful individuals and powerful systems. His conclusions merit administrators’ consideration as they encounter systems whose actions may differ from best professional knowledge and experience.

Gladwell identifies three ways in which power can be confronted:

  1. In using apparent disadvantages as advantages.
  2. In using difficulties as opportunities.
  3. In challenging power and, for those in power, knowing what is required for others to obey.

Using apparent disadvantages. David was able to kill Goliath because he was quick, agile and skilled, while Goliath was large and weighted down with armor and weapons. If David had fought Goliath in a traditional way, he would have lost; instead, he used his apparent disadvantages and engaged in nontraditional conflict. Similarly, T.E. Lawrence was able to overwhelm a large British army at Aqaba because he and his followers did not accept the conventional order of things as given. French Impressionists were able to become recognized by not participating in the prestigious Salon.

Material advantages and accepted conventional wisdom, Gladwell writes, may limit options. He challenges us to see our disadvantages as possible advantages. Bureaucratic structures can be a Goliath; administrators who identify ways in which they are more agile or skilled can address some of the limitations of bureaucracy. Moving municipal services to neighborhood-based centers is such a “David” approach. Administrators may be faced with those working outside the establishment who are playing by their own rules; recognizing their concerns is a first step towards avoiding being a Goliath.

Using difficulties as opportunities. There is more than one response, Gladwell writes, to something traumatic such as the loss of a parent or surviving a serious military attack—like the German bombing of London. Sometimes a virtue can be made of necessity. Difficulties require courage, “what you earn when you’ve been through tough times and you discover they aren’t so tough after all.” Difficulties can cause people to “process more deeply or think more carefully about what’s going on.”  A study of geniuses found they “have a perverse tendency of growing up in more adverse conditions.”  Hiring people who are “outsiders,” who come from different backgrounds or bring different experiences, may become employees whose creative abilities can address challenges. The difficulties created by the COVID pandemic led to enduring organizational adaptations, with new ways to engage employees, measure performance, use technology and interact with citizens and clients.

Challenging or using power. Gladwell, through accounts from Northern Ireland’s conflict with the British, from a New York police chief assigned to a high-crime precinct and from French resistance to the Vichy regime, describes disobedience as a “reasonable” response to intolerable authority. Disobedience is avoided “if those in authority behave—if [the people] feel they have a voice and if laws and rules are predictable.” The powerful “have to worry about how others think of them” and that their greatest advantage—their legitimate power base—has constraints. Excessive force creates legitimacy problems. This is as true in a supervisory or administrative situation as in an armed conflict.

Gladwell makes his case by blending anecdotal and quantitative data. He presents the inverted-U curve, where advantages become disadvantages. For example, the advantage of small class size may be a disadvantage; data from 18 countries “suggests that the thing we are convinced is such a big advantage might not be such an advantage at all.” He demonstrates the effectiveness of the New York police chief’s nontraditional approach to managing a high-crime neighborhood with crime statistics. He presents data proving that California’s Three Strikes law neither deterred felons nor decreased crime. Although this book is built on a series of anecdotes, the quantitative data reflect that these are not unique stories. The stories are memorable and cause us to think again about “common knowledge.”

 I read this book as the war raged in Ukraine, when citizens’ rights were being challenged by state legislatures, and when police officers were on trial for their treatment of citizens. Ukrainians, like Londoners during Germany’s Blitzkrieg, appear to find a measure of moral victory, even when faced with overwhelming odds. Barber’s Third Reconstruction recounts how the Davids in North Carolina—a disparate group of organizations seeking social, economic, political and environmental justice—a fusion coalition in North Carolina—confronted a legislature intent on disenfranchising citizens, especially the poor and those of color. In trials of police officers, those without police power (citizens) sought police accountability. 

Not everyone or every organization can be a David. It requires ability and agility, as well as the support of others. But, in a world where the Goliaths sometimes appear to be winning, it is encouraging to know that right can overcome might.


Author: Susan Paddock is a Professor Emerita from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with an interest in public leadership and in state and local government. She lives in Las Vegas and can be reached at [email protected] or at Twitter at @spaddock1030. Do you have a book that is not included in traditional public administration reading lists, but which holds important lessons?  Please share that with her via her email.

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