Executive Coach Executive CoachExecutive Coach
Scott Eblin offers his take on lessons in the news and his advice on your pressing leadership questions.

Success Rules of Underdogs


In his latest New Yorker article, "How David Beats Goliath," Malcolm Gladwell tells stories of how outmatched underdogs beat their much larger, more experienced competitors. He begins with the story of an inexperienced 12 year old girls basketball team that went all the way to the national championship game by running a relentless full court press every game. He moves onto the story of David slaying Goliath and cites some fascinating research by Harvard political scientist Ivan Arreguin-Toft who studied every war fought in the last 200 years that pitted strong and weak opponents against each other. On the whole, the underdogs won 28% of the time. When they recognized their weaknesses and adapted their strategies to compensate for them they won 64% of the time.

Pretty stunning, huh? Gladwell's article got me thinking about what leaders need to learn from underdogs. Over the past seven months, as the Federal government has taken a much more active role in stimulating the economy, reviving the financial services sector and restructuring the auto industry, we've been regularly reminded of Richard Nixon's observation in 1971 (and Milton Friedman's before that) that, "We are all Keynesians now." As we move through the downturn and into recovery, perhaps leaders need to adopt the mindset of, "We are all underdogs now." With that in mind, here are three success rules of underdogs that can help leaders facing long odds.

Get Real: Underdogs have a much better chance of winning when they honestly self-assess their strengths and weaknesses in the situation. When Arreguin-Toft broke his 200 year study of war down into 50 year increments, he observed that underdogs have been winning at a higher rate in the past 100 years. Why? Because they better understood their weaknesses and adopted insurgency strategies against their much larger and better equipped opponents. Think back to the pre- Petraeus period in Iraq for an example of this.

Go Where They're Not: In their book, Blue Ocean Strategy, Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne offer an underdog's handbook for succeeding by going where the competition isn't. Rather than competing in the red ocean (think of sharks fighting for the same food), they talk about creating blue ocean opportunities. Take online music as an example. It wasn't long ago that the Recording Industry Association of America was filing law suits against 15 year olds for downloading music from free file sharing sites. Enter Steve Jobs and Apple who said, "How about if we create a service where you can download all the songs you want for 99 cents each?" Five billion downloaded songs later, Apple's changed an industry and created two "must have" devices (iPod and iPhone) that have fed off the iTunes model.

Get Over It: Underdogs are innovators. They question the assumptions of the powers-that-be Goliaths. In the words of the famous Apple ad campaign they "Think Different." That can be a really uncomfortable position to be in when Goliath starts pushing back. The girls basketball team mentioned earlier lost the national championship game because they backed off the full court press when the other side complained vociferously and the refs started calling ticky-tack fouls. The conventional wisdom is very strong because it's convention. It's the way everybody does it or thinks about it. The cultural resistance to change can be exceedingly strong. Successful underdogs get over the need to be accepted by the keepers of the conventional wisdom. (Of course, they also pace the work from a change management standpoint, but that's a whole other post in itself.)

So, when you step back and look at what the opportunities are for your organization or where it needs to go, which of these underdog rules apply most to your situation? What underdog rules would you add based on your own experience or observation?

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.