Lessons for Business from Malcolm Gladwell

This week I attended the annual dinner of the Chicago chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel, which is an international organization of in-house attorneys. The Chicago unit is one of the largest units and I would estimate there were approximately 1,000 people in attendance at the Hyatt on Wacker Drive. As a former in-house attorney, I have attended a number of these and they usually have excellent featured speakers.

This year's was no exception. The main speaker was journalist and writer Malcolm Gladwell. I had enjoyed several of his books, Blink, The Tipping Point and Outliers, which are both very readable and thought provoking. I was interested to hear what he had to say these days.

The gist of his remarks really was to never take anything for granted or be too impressed by credentials. The starting point was the Wall Street meltdown, such as the blazing flameouts by such titans as Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and AIG. How could such disasters happen at firms populated by "masters of the universe" and Ivy League M.B.A.'s? Presumably these best of the best had access to the best information and the best advice. The answer essentially is that age old threat, hubris, and being too insulated and not challenged enough.

Gladwell underscored his theme with some comparable events from the Great Depression. But, he spent most of his time, and illustrated his research and story telling skills, by focusing on Union General Joseph Hooker and the Battle of Chancelorsville from the Civil War. Gladwell reviewed the overwhelming force at Hooker's disposal and exhaustive intelligence he gathered on the position and plans of his adversary, Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Hooker believed he had outflanked Lee in every way and done everything to prepare for an overwhelming victory to start the next morning.

Yet, though highly outnumbered, Lee launched an attack the preceding night, somehow catching the Union army completely offguard and in disarray, leading to a chaotic retreat. What had seemed a sure victory, became an inexplicable and embarrassing defeat.

So, to me, the takeaways were to always be careful to prevent overconfidence and never put to much faith in the purported experts. In other words, as we like to say around here, whether for business or law, never be afraid to challenge the conventional wisdom, when the facts or common sense guide you to do so.

Contact Chicago and Deerfield business lawyer, Jeremy A. Gibson, to discuss your favorite books or resources with good teachings or guidance for business law.