Winning with your weaknesses

Full disclosure: I’m sitting in the San Diego airport. It’s very early, my flight needed to be rerouted due to weather, and here is what I have to say about that…. (wait for it…..): Many thanks to the people at United who did a great job of working with me to find an alternative route, and they did it with a smile.  This must have been one of the worst winters in terms of having to deal with cancellations, so I braced myself for the worst and all I got was the best.

I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath, and one of the overriding themes is that our greatest strengths could be our weaknesses.  He gives the example of David versus Goliath: clearly with Goliath’s size and strength, he should be been a slam-dunk to win the battle.  And we all know how that worked out.

It was a classic example of David using his weaknesses. He was small compared to Goliath, and he certainly didn’t have the material that Goliath brought to their fight.  However, David used his weaknesses, size and material, to his advantage, substituting speed and surprise.

In some ways my positive experience this morning (even though it was just another re-routing) was a bit of David against Goliath. Think about it, the Goliath (in this case, corporate United — or fill in any other airline) is finding ways to cut back on personnel, charging for bags, charging for any food served on the plane, charging for “premium” seats, etc.  So you compound this with missed connections and bad weather, and the front line workers (the Davids in this case) could easily have the mentality that I can’t make a difference.  For me today, the David (actually Diane) I worked with made my day and my travel experience a success.  Moral of the story: each of us can make a difference in how we interact with a customer, a staff member, a family member, and a friend.  We have many opportunities to make the choice to create raving fans in our interaction with others.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m all for being bigger and stronger, but Gladwell reminds us that “It is good to be bigger and stronger than your opponent. It is not so good to be so big and strong that you are a sitting duck for a rock fired at 150 miles an hour.”  You gotta ask yourself: are you ready to duck when the rock is fired at you?

The David and Goliath metaphor also works for me when I think about what we do in our professional and continuing education units.  We are that unit that isn’t as big as our home institution, and because of that we can (and need to) be more nimble and fast to respond to emerging needs, and we can (and must) be using tools that are most effective in meeting these needs.  If we are David, we demonstrate our openness because we strip away the heavy armor of our institution (let’s face it coming to a college campus can be intimidating for some people) and use whatever tools we have available to reach out to those who are often underserved.

One of the pieces of armor our institutions have is our policies and procedures that are more often than not developed for those 18 to 22 year olds that come to our campus.  And one of our roles as Davids is to assist our institution in questioning/examining these procedures in relation to serving audiences beyond the campus.  I am stalwart in terms of maintaining the academic integrity of our courses and degree programs. From my vantage point, a JMU degree is of the same quality and rigor no matter if it is delivered on campus, off-campus or online.

What I am suggesting is that we Davids are what Jordan Peterson suggests: that innovators and revolutionaries tend to have a very particular mix of traits of openness, consciousness, and agreeableness.  In particular, innovators tend to lean towards being disagreeable.   This is not in the sense of being obnoxious or unpleasant, but it means that we are willing to take risks and question the status quo.

I’ve often said that professional and continuing education units are the R&D arm for our institutions and we have, in my mind, to help our institutions in questioning the status quo, our set ways of doing things.  As an aside, I’ve am very lucky to be at an institution that is very open to these types of conversations.

While it can be difficult and sometimes not very popular to be the individual or the unit raising questions and/or challenging policies and procedures, we simply need to remember that we may be the “unreasonable man/woman” on behalf of students that may not have access. Gladwell uses a quote from George Bernard Shaw that captures this notion: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.  Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Here’s to all the Davids who have the courage to be the unreasonable man/woman in an effort to make progress.


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One Response to Winning with your weaknesses

  1. Don Swoboda says:

    I’ll drink to that ,too.

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