| Feb 25, 2014
On Feb. 21, nearly 900 Nashvillians had the opportunity to hear from Malcolm Gladwell, bestselling author and staff writer for The New Yorker
. Speaking at Belmont University’s Leadership Breakfast presented by Belmont’s Executive Learning Network and Parnassus Books, and supported by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, Gladwell took the role of storyteller – primarily to explain his ideas around the theory of legitimacy – a theme in his most recent book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants.
The underlying lesson of Gladwell’s narrative was to explain human behavior – a skill he’s become known for in his previous books, including Blink
, which explains how some choices made by gut instinct are the most successful; The Tipping Point
, which describes why certain ideas, trends or social behaviors reach a "tipping point" and end up spreading like wildfire; and Outliers
, which examines what differentiates the highest achievers.
In his speech, Gladwell wove together tales of underdogs turned radicals, including that of Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, a New York socialite and multi-millionaire who became a leader in the women’s suffrage movement that won women the right to vote in 1920.
Through his stories, Gladwell described the three prongs of the theory of legitimacy: people obey authority when they feel they are treated with trust, fairness and respect. On the other hand, when people do not feel they are treated legitimately – as in the case of Alva Vanderbilt Belmont – their anger may lead them to become unlikely radicals. Gladwell wrapped up by saying, “If you deny people legitimacy, they will one day, by one means or another, come back and defeat you.”
While the theory of legitimacy can apply to some of the most contentious political fights in history, it also applies to an important principle of leadership: Those in positions of power have an obligation to behave in a way that legitimizes their followers.
This is an important lesson for business leaders and entrepreneurs. As we work to grow our companies, the way we treat others can very well be the defining factor in our success.
Photo courtesy of Belmont University. Photographer: Andrea Hallgren