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3 Things People Get Wrong About David vs. Goliath

The next time you hear about a David versus Goliath story, don't think of an underdog. Think of a confident competitor who is more than happy to be underestimated.
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It's true: Great leaders see the future differently. However, when I wrote about that recently, I learned that I might have taken the wrong lesson from one of my examples.

Among the many things that the greatest leaders seem to understand better is that the idea of an underdog beating a giant isn't an exception. Instead, it actually comes closer to the rule--a scenario we often think of as "David versus Goliath."

As someone pointed out on Twitter, however, Malcolm Gladwell has spent some time recently addressing this topic.

In fact, he wrote an entire book about David and Goliath, but I somehow missed it. Here's the deal. You might envision David versus Goliath as the story of a weak shepherd defeating a mighty warrior. However, it turns out that's not what the story is about at all. In the interest of stopping you from making bad business decisions because you didn't pay attention during Sunday School, let's explore the correct version of the story, and what it really means.

1. Goliath can't see.

Let's start with the fact that Goliath is a giant--a mighty, 6-foot-9 Philistine warrior. He's a big guy by modern standards, and he would have been absolutely colossal in Biblical times. It turns out scientists wrestled with that detail, and have debated for decades whether Goliath might have had a disorder called acromegaly. This condition leads to a person growing extremely tall--but also often leads to double-vision and severe nearsightedness.

Lo and behold, in the Biblical story, as Gladwell points out, Goliath has to call out to David in order to fight him: "Come to me that I might feed your flesh to the birds of the heavens and the beasts of the field." Why? Perhaps because he can't see him. Big competitors' perceived advantages can often mask their even bigger disadvantages.

2. Goliath is powerless.

Why are David and Goliath fighting to begin with? Because the Philistines have proposed to send their toughest warrior against the Israelites' toughest warrior to settle a dispute in "single combat." As Gladwell put it in his TED talk:

[T]he Philistine who is sent down, their mighty warrior, is a giant. ... He's outfitted head to toe in this glittering bronze armor, and he's got a sword and he's got a javelin and he's got his spear. He is absolutely terrifying. And he's so terrifying that none of the Israelite soldiers want to fight him. It's a death wish, right? There's no way they think they can take him.

On the other hand, David is a lowly shepherd boy--and yet he's the only person willing to fight Goliath. He also refuses to wear armor. Why? Because David is also apparently the only person in the story who realizes that heavy armor weighs a warrior down. Goliath could easily kill David with his sword--but only if David were foolish enough to walk right up to Goliath. Of course, that's the last thing David plans to do.

3. David is deadly.

The final misconception is the idea that David goes into battle with "only a sling." When we hear that with modern ears, we might think of a child's toy--a slingshot. However, that's not what David has at all. Instead, he's carrying a sling, which is a simple but highly effective weapon. Armies used it in battle, and shepherds like David used it to protect their flocks from wild animals. As Gladwell puts it:

[A] sling has a leather pouch with two long cords attached to it, and ... a projectile, either a rock or a lead ball. ... It's not a child's toy. It's in fact an incredibly devastating weapon. ... If you do the calculations on the ballistics, on the stopping power of the rock fired from David's sling, it's roughly equal to the stopping power of a [.45 caliber] handgun. This is an incredibly devastating weapon. ... When David lines up ... he has every intention and every expectation of being able to hit Goliath at his most vulnerable spot between his eyes.

In fact, that's exactly what David does--walks right up to Goliath (but still far enough away that Goliath's swords and javelin are useless) and kills Goliath with a single shot to the head. It's like when Indiana Jones shoots the intimidating Arab swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Take a look at the story again. The lesson isn't simply that when a powerful competitor takes on a smaller one, the smaller one might nevertheless win. Instead, great leaders understand that the real keys to battle are sometimes obscured by our misconceptions. Perceiving them correctly can amount to a Goliath-sized advantage.

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IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: May 6, 2014

BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist

Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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