Malcolm Gladwell - World Business Forum 2011

Malcolm Gladwell is an author and columnist. He has brought us great fodder for consideration in his books The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, and has been an award-winning writer for The New Yorker Magazine since 1996. In his time on stage at the World Business Forum, Gladwell shared his thoughts on risk. His thesis is pretty simple: Leadership is about taking risk.

Simple, indeed. According to Gladwell, there are two types of risk that good leaders will have to cross at some point or another in their leadership careers: operational risk, and social risk.

  • Operational risk asks how willing you are as a leader to bet big. Do you have the guts to risk the company on a path you believe is right?
  • Social risk asks how willing you are to give up popularity in the face of big, potentially unpopular decisions.

Gladwell’s research over the years has led him to some interesting observations. As it turns out, many in positions of leadership take massive operational risks, betting the company on some new product or another, all the while working hard to ensure they remain socially accepted and popular.

But the best leaders, says Gladwell, the leaders that make the biggest and most profound impact, make decisions in precisely the opposite fashion. Instead of being willing to bet the farm on hair-brain ideas that follow the accepted, popular path, the best leaders are even-headed and operationally risk averse. And yet, they are willing to risk their social capital to do what they believe is right. The best leaders inspire through reason, and when push comes to shove, they don’t care what the rest of the world thinks about them.

Gladwell is part of a fascinating caste of journalists at work today. He is a keen observer of the human business condition, and the elements of communication that pique his interest for investigation tend toward those that are only completely obvious in hindsight.

Insight, Gladwell said, might be the greatest difficulty for great leaders. It takes great insight, after all for leaders to find strength and motivation to take risks and accept social rejection. In the end, the calculus is fairly simple: You have to love what you do, Gladwell says. If you truly love what you do, you will be willing to take the right sorts of risk and work that much harder.