The Importance of Agility and Speed in Overcoming the Myth of Underdogs

Everybody thinks they know the story of David and Goliath.  The story as most people know is the epic battle from more than 3,000 years ago of an underdog shepherd boy defeating an experienced warrior giant with nothing but a simple slingshot.  In Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, the notion of David as the underdog is refuted.

People view David as the underdog because he was just a kid, a shepherd versus an experienced and more well-equipped warrior.  No one else in the Israelite army stepped up to fight David because it was thought to be a futile gesture which would likely end in death at the hands of the giant.  But this is where people make a mistake and misunderstand both David and Goliath.  For all of his size, Goliath’s size probably had a medical side effect that caused his vision to be very weak.  And despite David’s small stature, his weapon of choice – the slingshot – was a highly effective and lethal weapon in the hands of someone who had been using the slingshot for his entire life to defend his sheep from predators.

Instead of David being the underdog, Malcolm Gladwell posits that David won the battle because of, and not despite his size and choice of weapon.  In essence, David’s seeming disadvantages turned out to be competitive benefits for him.

What lessons can we take away from Gladwell’s re-examination of this classic tale?  In business, we have similar stories where we have small and nimble upstart companies who need to compete against large, formidable companies with tons of resources.  However, both size and resources can serve as stumbling blocks to the larger companies in situations where rules are changing and where the attributes of speed, flexibility and adaptability become virtues.  David’s use of a disrupting technology, his nimbleness and his ability to change the rules were able to win the day.  In the same way, smart companies today are thinking about the competitive environment in the same way and applying David’s attributes to beat their competition.

You can view Malcolm Gladwell’s own interpretation of David and Goliath in the recent TED video below, read about it in his interview with or view the NY Times book review of “David and Goliath”.

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