Leaders and Outliers

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Abstract

This paper discusses Malcolm Gladwell’s 2011 non-fiction book, Outliers: The Story of Success. The book itself is an informal study of what makes certain individuals stand out against their contemporaries, be it in physical, mental or social terms. This paper addresses several of the stories Gladwell uses to defend his point. It also uses the class text, Andrew J. DuBrin’s Leadership: Research Findings, Practice, and Skills. While this paper does discuss some similarities between the two authors’ philosophies, it is more concerned with the differences, of which there are more. At the core, the two books take very different approaches that this paper delineates clearly. It addresses concepts from DuBrin’s text and how they do and, in many cases, do not fall in line with Gladwell’s work. We see how each feels about dedication, about circumstance, about failing, and about charisma. Overall, both works are addressed, explored and explained more thoroughly when compared to each other, as the concepts of one are easier to see when juxtaposed for contrast with the other.

Introduction

Malcolm Gladwell’s 2011 non-fiction book, Outliers: The Story of Success (Outliers), is an informal study of what makes certain individuals stand out against their contemporaries, be it in physical, mental, or social terms. The book contains several stories which Gladwell believes prove his assertion that success relies almost entirely on circumstance. Outliers sets out to discern what makes extremely successful people so successful in the first place, but by the work’s end, it seems that Gladwell’s true belief is that success, beyond the general level, is mostly determined by circumstance. Outliers is broken up into two sections. The first, “Opportunity” contains several chapters, each of which describes someone who has been particularly successful in their specific field and examines exactly what about the person’s life has allowed them to do so well. The second section, “Legacy” profiles individuals who were born into situations that allowed them to gain an advantage. In this section, Gladwell refers to his own family history and the reader gains an understanding of why Gladwell feels the way he does about success and circumstance.

The class text, Andrew J. DuBrin’s Leadership: Research Findings, Practice, and Skills, (Leadership) offers a much less happenstance definition of success. It is encouraging in some ways and discouraging in others. Leadership discusses the various aspects of an individual that makes him or her a valuable and successful leader. DuBrin refers to certain traits, behaviors, and characteristics that are more often than not in the individual’s control to employ and adopt if they hope to become successful leaders. On the other hand, Gladwell’s book is full of anecdotes related to successful people who were granted advantages early in life that have little to do with their leadership type or skills.

Discussion

Unlike Leadership, Outliers is not simply an academic text. Leadership provides a lot of practical discussions and advice that can be applied to real-world situations, while Outliers offers real-life accounts that can be used to explain phenomena in the world. The introduction to Outliers tells the story of a small town in Pennsylvania known as Roseto. Its residents came primarily from an Italian village known as Foggia. The town remained fairly undisturbed, until the 1950s, when a physician from a nearby town, Stewart Wolf, began to notice that the men living in Roseto almost never suffered from heart disease (Gladwell, 2008, p. 6).

Presented with this information, it would seem a safe assumption that this was due to some genetic predisposition, but Wolf found that this was not the case, nor was it do to a particularly healthy eating habit, or dedication to exercise. Instead, Wolf found that the extremely healthy community of Roseto was also extremely close-knit. It was the only thing he could find that accounted for Roseto’s incredible health. Roseto, based on something seemingly unrelated, was an outlier in physical health. How this relates to the successes discussed later in the book, is not entirely clear, but this example does do well to illustrate how the reason for a certain outcome is not always readily apparent.

DuBrin’s text, Leadership: Research Findings, Practice, and Skills, on the other hand, is a much more straightforward work. It provides discussions of various topics and concepts related to the business world and advice for leaders in these situations. For example, DuBrin lists, in chapter two, “Traits, Motives, and Characteristics of Leaders” the traits that he believes are most needed in a successful leader. His list includes humility, sense of humor, self-confidence, and authenticity among other traits that he believes makes a leader good at what he or she does. This list is full of aspects of character that an individual may improve upon if it seems they are lacking. DuBrin offers the advice that, “if you find any area of deficiency, work on that deficiency steadily” (2004, p. 64). He believes that in the course of six months skills can be developed that one was lacking beforehand. Gladwell would likely disagree with this notion. For one thing, chapter one, “The Matthew Effect” is in direct contrast with DuBrin’s assertion that an individual’s success is reliant on their ability to adopt and employ certain qualities. The reader sees this in Gladwell’s discussion of Canadian hockey players.

Gladwell recounts a study done by a psychologist named Roger Barnsley, about Canadian hockey players. According to Gladwell, “Barnsley found that there were nearly five and a half times as many Ontario Junior Hockey League players born in January as were born in November” (2006, p. 26). This may seem an anomalous occurrence, but Barnsley found a perfectly reasonable explanation for this. Because hockey leagues are arranged by birth year, players born in January play on the same teams as those born in December of the same year. This means that there are children playing who are nearly a full year older than their teammates. Simply due to age, these children are often larger, more coordinated, and better able to follow rules and directions. These children are singled out as more talented players, and because of this, their talents are fostered more attentively (Gladwell, 2004, p. 26). Due to the mere fact of their birthdate, these players are given a better chance at success. This is in direct contrast to DuBrin’s belief that skills can be nurtured and worked on later in life, and that leaders can choose to emerge as such on their own.

The second chapter of Outliers, “The 10,000 Rule” contends that in order to become an expert at any one skill, a person needs to practice that specific skill for 10,000 hours. This belief comes from a study conducted by a psychologist, K. Anders Ericsson, who, working with musicians at the Academy of Music in Berlin, found that the most talented students had put in 10,000 hours of work (Gladwell, 2008, p. 38). Later in the book, he also cites Bill Gates as another example, as Gates had access to computers long before the general population. Because he was able to put his 10,000 hours in before computers became a ubiquitous force, he had skill above and beyond his contemporaries (Gladwell, 2008, p. 272). Gladwell would not likely agree with DuBrin in thinking that a person who was not a master in a certain skill would be able to make a marked improvement in such a short amount of time.

There are some instances where even DuBrin admits that circumstances can sometimes affect a situation despite a leader’s best efforts. DuBrin offers the fact that smartphones have begun to far outsell laptops and tablets. In some business situations, a failing like this (specifically for the smartphone sellers) could be blamed on the people involved in the business, but DuBrin believes that, at least here, this is not the case. He explains, "The sales boom in these [smart phones] could be better attributed to an outside force of handheld communication technology becoming so essential for so many people than to inspire leadership within telecommunications companies (DuBrin, 2004, p. 10). This explanation shows that there are some instances that cannot be fixed through dedication and work. This is more in line with Gladwell’s thinking that circumstances often play a bigger role than any controllable factors might.

One of the aspects of success that both DuBrin and Gladwell agree on is that charisma plays a large part in success. DuBrin devotes an entire chapter to the importance of charisma in a successful leader. In “Charismatic and Transformational Leadership,” he writes, “Charisma is a special quality of leaders whose purposes, powers, and extraordinary determination differentiate them from others. [It] means to have a charming and colorful personality, such as that shown by basketball star Carmelo Anthony or soccer star Mia Hamm” (DuBrin, 2004, p. 74). DuBrin believes that charisma is important for a transformational leader because studies have shown that a charismatic leader is more likely to have a happier staff of employees. A happier staff of employees will work harder to please their employer. He also says that workplace stress can be reduced when the leader is charismatic (DuBrin, 2004, p. 75). The influence of charisma on a team is an important one to recognize.

Gladwell also believes that charisma plays a role in success. Chapter Three, “The Trouble With Genuises” explains his ideas of charisma and its importance. Gladwell discusses two American men with very similar IQs: Chris Langan and J. Robert Oppenheimer. Langan is a simple farmer who is smarter than most of the rest of the world. Oppenheimer was a physicist who is known for being one of the “fathers of the atomic bomb.” Gladwell’s point in comparing these two men is to show that their intelligence is only important up to a point. Gladwell explains that Oppenheimer was so much more successful that Langan, "not because he was smarter than Chris Langan. It's because he possessed the kind of savvy that allowed him to get what he wanted from the world” (Gladwell, 2008, p. 100). Gladwell tells his readers of Oppenheimer’s ability to talk people out of stopping him from doing what he wished and from holding him accountable for things that could have gotten in the way of his success. He, for example, tried to poison his tutor and was simply given probation. Something about Oppenheimer’s personality made it easier for him to get things and people to work in his favor. This is the charisma that DuBrin described and that Lagan is lacking. Both Gladwell and DuBrin seem to agree on the fact that while circumstances cannot always be accounted for, it is still important to understand that how a person is perceived by others plays a big role in how successful a person will or will not be.

Conclusion

Overall, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success and Andrew J. DuBrin’s textbook Leadership: Research Findings, Practice, and Skills are not very similar works beyond the fact that they deal with many of the same subjects. While Gladwell seems to argue that hard work and perseverance are only responsible for a small part of a person’s success, DuBrin believes the opposite: that hard work and perseverance are more necessary than anything else to be successful and that sometimes circumstances get in the way. Gladwell’s real-world stories are effective because they give practical examples of the ideas he presents.

DuBrin’s work is much drier. It is a textbook. It provides more practical information, but Outliers gives more to think about as its entire premise is based on the fact that not everything has an obvious explanation. Gladwell ends his book with a story about his own circumstances that lead to his success. He explains the long line of circumstances that begin with his family history as slaves: “My great-great-great-grandmother was bought at Alligator Pond. That act, in turn, gave her son, John Ford, the privilege of a skin color that spared him a life of slavery” (Gladwell, 2008, p. 285). Gladwell believes enough in his ideas of circumstance that he excuses his own success as inevitable based on the circumstances leading up to it. While history and race are not discussed in Leadership, it’s safe to say that DuBrin would not likely agree with this. DuBrin would likely argue that Gladwell is successful because he is hardworking and has the personality necessary to do the job well. Gladwell obviously doesn’t feel the same, as he spends an entire chapter explaining why his success has nothing to do with him. Gladwell and DuBrin have specific ideas about success, and each was able to communicate their ideas soundly.

References

DuBrin, A. J. (2004). Leadership: Research findings, practice, and skills (4th ed.). New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: the story of success. New York: Little, Brown and Co.