Tales of underdogs that won and lost

Malcolm Gladwell, author of bestsellers The Tipping Point, Outliers, and What the Dog Saw, this year offered a typically provocative take on what it really means to be the underdog.

In his latest, David & Goliath, Gladwell challenges the common perception of obstacles using the battlefield in ancient Palestine as his template, where a shepherd boy felled a mighty warrior using only a slingshot.

History tells us this was an improbable victory — a perception Gladwell challenges in a book that is as much about business as it is about the business of life. Goliath was the real underdog, a slow and clumsy adversary for the agile, quick-witted David, who used the terrain to his ultimate advantage.

Setbacks such as discrimination, disability, and poor social origins are difficulties to be overcome, Gladwell says, and often breed a more diligent and innovative kind of mindset. Delving into diverse examples ranging from the politics of the North to civil rights campaigners, Gladwell demonstrates how adversity make us what we are — a fact we forget at the expense of our careers.

One of the chapters recounts the story of how a remote French village, Le Chambon, publicly stood up to the Nazis during the occupation by offering refuge to Jews. Not only did the citizens not hide such a dangerous activity, they advertised it. Rather than suffer obliteration from their oppressors, however, the people of Le Chambon were left alone — and hundreds of Jews were saved. The underdog has more advantages than are apparent, Gladwell argues: The trick is how to use them.

The rise and fall of Ireland’s richest man is a story infused with all that was right and wrong with the Celtic Tiger and the people who created it. For a time, Sean Quinn was not only Ireland’s richest man, but also amongst the top 200 billionaires in the world. Citizen Quinn: A Man, An Empire & A Family, by Gavin Daly of the Sunday Times and Ian Kehoe of the Sunday Business Post tracks the remarkable life and times of this extraordinary individual his from humble origins. A self-proclaimed ‘simple Cavan farmer’s son’, Quinn’s rise and rise through the 1990s and early 2000s into a corporate Robin Hood of the border counties is a tale of graft and determination to transform his economically depressed birthright into a thriving commercial centre. Involved in everything from hotels to insurance, Quinn seemed the most unlikely mogul to lose the run of himself — a cautious and clever businessman with both feet firmly planted on profitable ground. Like many other seemingly solid paragons of Ireland’s boom era, however, he succumbed to avarice and made one of the world’s greatest gambles on what became the toxic Anglo Irish Bank. A cautionary tale for our times, and one whose ripples continue to shape Ireland.

One of the most publicised books of the year was Lean In by Facebook boss Sheryl Sandberg. Despite the fact that women make up a full 50% of graduates in the US, why is it that men still hold the vast majority of leadership positions in business and government? With an obvious resonance for women across the world, the book examines the reasons women have not progressed further on the equality highway, and offers possible solutions on how this inequality can be turned around. Listed in Fortune Magazine’s 50 Most Powerful Business Women and Time Magazine 100 Most Influential People in the World, Sandberg’s voice carries global weight — not alone as one of Facebook’s creative leaders, but also as the woman whose TED talk on how her gender unintentionally hold themselves back has been viewed more than 2m times.

Women need to take more risks, welcome challenges, and pursue their ambitions with the same vigour men have for generations, she says. Mixing anecdotes from her climb up the corporate ladder with practical views on the mistakes, misconceptions, and myths associated with women’s’ progress to the boardroom, Sandberg plots a possible path that may not encompass ‘having it all’, but is surely the next best thing. A book for anyone in business, not just women.

In a year when Wikileaks and cyber attacks garnered multiple headlines, We Are Anonymous by Parmy Olson is a timely guide to the shadowy world of ‘hacktivists’. Olson, a Forbes Magazine journalist, delves behind the multiple firewalls and dummy sites of the global movement dedicated to undermining multinationals and governments through website jamming, data theft, and blizzards of misinformation. Mining the same territory as Misha Glenny’s Dark Markets: How Hackers Became The New Mafia, Olson opens a window on this growing corner of cyberspace, where genius for code-making and breaking is mixed with a knack for conning victims through the unregulated avenues of social media.


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