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Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Should Business Leaders Take an Intellectual Adventure With Malcolm Gladwell?

Man thinking with glasses in his hand
February 22, 2024  |  By Stephen Caldwell

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Note: This is part of a series of Walton Insights reviews of classic books on business and leadership.  

Malcolm Gladwell has described his first two books, The Tipping Point and Blink, as intellectual adventure stories. The label also applies to his third book, Outliers, and I suspect it fits anything else he’s ever written. 

So when putting together a list of classic business and leadership books to review, it was worth asking if anything of Gladwell’s really fit those genres. The answer: Probably not.  

But here’s something to consider: Can business leaders benefit from reading books that aren’t expressly about business and leadership?  

The answer: Yes! (emphatically) 

Indeed, well-rounded leaders are well-rounded readers. The diversity of their reading lists often includes novels, poetry, biographies, autobiographies, children’s books, historical fiction, and self-help, as well as a range of non-fiction books on topics of personal and work-related interests.  

They don’t all have teaching points, laws, or principles. Maybe they expand our understanding of ourselves or the world around us. Maybe they inspire, encourage, or convict. Maybe they just clear our minds of the problems of work so we can tackle them later with a fresh perspective. 

While I haven’t read all of Gladwell’s books—there are seven, at last count—everything I’ve read by Gladwell has served me well, personally and professionally.  

I am most familiar with The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers (his first three books), and all were enjoyable, well-written intellectual adventure stories. That alone makes them worth recommending. Beyond that, however, they also have plenty of applications to leadership and business. That’s why I kept them on my list of books to review in this series, and why I suggest anyone serious about improving their leadership should take the time to read or re-read them. 

Gladwell inevitably draws on a variety of examples to highlight his points. He might use an illustration about tennis players or crime in New York, but the applications apply to everything from sales and marketing to management and communication styles. 

The Tipping Point struck a chord in the business world by introducing terms like connectors, mavens, and persuaders to illustrate how ideas and products reach a critical point that allows them to “spread like viruses do.”  

Of the three books, The Tipping Point has the most direct application to a business audience, especially anyone involved in marketing and branding. It’s also the oldest. A good bit has changed about how ideas and products take hold in the market since it came out in 2000. There was no Facebook, Instagram, Twitter (or X), or TikTok in 2000, and you would have been hard pressed to find anyone using “influencer” in their job title.  

If you worry that the book is a bit dated, then have a little patience. A revised edition is reportedly in the works

Blink is about how and why we often reach conclusions in the “blink of an eye.” Much of it feels like a book on human psychology that’s written for ordinary people, and it is. But anyone in sales should devour and apply what it says about “thin slicing” and marketers (and voters) should have a basic understanding of the “Warren Harding error” and the “Kenna’s dilemma.”

Ultimately, it’s not easy to know when to trust your gut and when you need to ask more questions and lean into more data, but Blink helps us understand what to consider and how to avoid the traps that can get us in trouble. That’s a useful skill for any leader or manager.

Outliers takes a deep dive into what makes high-achievers different. This book strikes a more autobiographical tone, but it still relies on research and stories about other people (Bill Gates, hockey players, the Beatles). Outliers examines the variety of factors that contribute to success, especially those that you might not expect to be a factor, including the role friends, family, co-workers, and society plays in a high-achiever’s success. 

That said, Outliers was criticized, for over-simplifying the concepts. The 10,000-hour rule, for instance, claims that the key to world-class expertise in any skill boils down to practicing it the correct way for 10,000 hours. The authors of the original study Gladwell cites disputed how he used their results. Although practice is no guarantee of success, it’s hard to dispute that those who are successful earned it in part by their commitment to practice. 

Even if Outliers lacks the intellectual rigor of the first two books, it’s still an enjoyable and worthwhile adventure story for anyone who wants to lead and manage more effectively. And while The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers might not be classic business books, they are classics every business leader should read. 

Matt WallerStephen Caldwell is Chief Word Architect for WordBuilders, Inc., where he spends most of his time helping clients discover, craft, and share the messages of their hearts. In addition to writing and editing for newspapers, magazines, and on numerous book projects, he has developed leadership and functional training for Fortune 500 companies. He lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.