Skip to main content

Imagine a news story about a small-town person who stood up against a seemingly corrupt government official.

Despite being vastly outmatched, this individual bravely spoke up, leading to the official’s resignation. At first glance, this fits neatly into the David-and-Goliath narrative, where a small and unlikely hero triumphs over a powerful adversary.

However, the audience may quickly label the person as a brave and heroic figure without knowing the full story or their true motivations. This oversimplification overlooks the possibility of a more nuanced reality. For instance, what if the ‘hero’ leveraged a close relative’s extensive political influence to force the official’s resignation simply because the official refused to grant an improper business-related favor?

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

Who is David and who is Goliath, really? Are we sure we can always tell?

Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “David and Goliath,” demystifies the traditional take on the biblical tale by presenting that what we perceive as strengths and weaknesses can be misleading. Gladwell argues that what is rarely mentioned about Goliath, is that despite his imposing size and strength, he had significant vulnerabilities, such as impaired vision and slow movement. Conversely, David’s agility, skill, and unconventional approach with a sling turned his perceived weaknesses into strengths.

More often than not, identifying with ‘David’ or ‘Goliath’, or the ‘hero’ and the ‘villain’ so to speak is a purely subjective matter. It is entirely possible for a ‘villain’ (or a ‘perpetrator’) to see themselves as a ‘hero’ (or a ‘victim’) and the counterparty as the ‘villain’. This dynamic occurs frequently across various contexts.

Historical and Contemporary Examples

Consider World War II. Adolf Hitler portrayed Germany as ‘David,’ supposedly defending itself against a vast global conspiracy of Jews, whom he blamed for both capitalism and communism. In reality, the Jewish community saw themselves as ‘Davids’, facing the terrifying Goliath of Nazi Germany’s brutal regime.

Another example is the American Revolutionary War. The American colonies, perceived as small and powerless, stood against the might of the British Empire. Yet, the British viewed the colonies as rebellious and dangerous, collectively threatening the established order and stability.

In the business world, we often encounter similar narratives. Think of a tech start-up that challenges an industry giant. The start-up is seen as the scrappy underdog (David), while the established company is viewed as the behemoth (Goliath). However, beneath the surface, the start-up may have significant financial backing and influential connections, complicating the simple David-and-Goliath story.

Implications for the Workplace

In the workplace, these dynamics also play out frequently. A disengaged employee might feel like a ‘David’ or a victim of corporate oppression, viewing the owner as an avatar of ‘Goliath.’ The employee might thus convince themselves that not working as hard is an act of rebellion. However, this perspective might overlook a more nuanced reality.

The owner might simply be an ambitious person pursuing their own dream, managing their own vulnerabilities and fears, overburdened with loans and personal challenges, and facing difficulties at home due to long working hours. The owner, in turn, may feel that disengaged employees are the ‘Goliath’ threatening the whole company’s survival.

We can all benefit from being more empathetic and willing to see things from each other’s perspectives. Dispelling unfounded presumptions is not as easy as it looks, as such presumptions are often rooted in our most fundamental beliefs and political filters. For example, a strong political leaning towards the left may colour employers and managers as oppressors (‘Goliaths’), whereas a strong leaning towards the right may view disengaged employees as the threat to honest entrepreneurs (‘Davids’).

Practical Steps for Leaders

  1. Dig Deeper: Gather comprehensive information before making judgments. Understand the motivations and pressures on all sides to see beyond surface appearances.
  2. Encourage Transparency: Foster an environment where employees feel safe sharing their perspectives. Open communication helps reveal the true dynamics and prevents misperceptions.
  3. Cultivate Empathy: Promote empathy among team members. Understanding different perspectives can bridge gaps and lead to more effective and harmonious working relationships.

By acknowledging the complexities behind the David-and-Goliath narratives, we can better navigate leadership challenges and create workplaces that are both successful and humane.

PS: Part of the above text derives from an extract from my latest book “The MARVEL of Happiness: Principles, Stories and Lessons for Living Fully.” All rights reserved. See here.

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience. If you continue using this website, we'll assume that you are happy about that.

Contact Us