October 8, 2009
Malcolm Gladwell: What's More Dangerous than Incompetence?
Malcolm Gladwell told the story of the battle of Chancellorsville, VA, in which General “Fighting Joe” Hooker maneuvers his Union Army to encircle the Confederate Army on three sides, and then delivers a speech to his troops: “God Almighty Himself cannot prevent us from victory in this battle.”
What led to such misguided certainty? As the battle unfolded, it turned out he was horribly wrong.
Having more and more information leads to greater, even excess confidence. It’s called miscalibration. We have lots of information. You think you know more than you actually know.
Mistakes are made not because of LACK of knowledge, but because of excess knowledge. Mistakes are sometimes not the result of incompetence, but because of overcompetence. Incompetence irritates me. Overconfidence scares me.
Our economic disaster is a result of very smart, overconfident people making some terrible decisions.
What happened at Chancellorsville? Lee didn’t retreat, as expected, but counterattacked and surprised and defeated Hooker’s army. Hooker’s overconfidence led to his defeat and then his dismissal. Interestingly Lee then went on the offensive that continued until he reached Gettysburg, where he himself overreached and was defeated.
In times of success what we need is not overconfidence but humility. It’s too easy to cut yourself off from listening to the feedback you need to hear.
His best takeaway: In church world, we’ve seen preachers with massive leadership teams, deacons/committees. Then lone ranger not giving away power, wanting efficiency. Then seeking a diverse leadership team. As organization grows, the decision making has to be more collective. As long as then collective doesn't get overconfident, I assume.
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