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Author Malcolm Gladwell Reminds Executives, Students Importance of Legitimacy

malcolm gladwell-123-XLWhen not legitimized by authority, anger transforms underdogs into radicals, bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell told business executives and students on Friday morning as he captivated their attention with his narratives.

Belmont University’s Executive Learning Network and Parnassus Books brought the author and The New Yorker staff writer to the Curb Event Center on Friday for the Spring Leadership Breakfast.

Gladwell shared the story of New York socialite turned suffragist Alva Vanderbilt and her philanthropist daughter, Consuelo, intertwined with nuggets on Northern Ireland women who marched on armed British soldiers. His talk was pickled with modern day references to the Kardashians, Kanye West lyrics and the Sochi Winter Olympics.

Although the stories are not in his most recent book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, Gladwell said they are reflective of the book, which focuses on “how people in positions of leadership are called to behave and what happens when people of power do not behave as they are supposed to.”

Intertwined with his historical anecdotes were his thoughts on the deterrent theory, which explains why people do not misbehave, and the theory of legitimacy, which suggests that people obey laws based on how they are treated by authority.

“When we are treated with trust, respect and fairness, we tend to obey the law,” Gladwell said. “What happens to people when they are denied legitimacy? They get angry, and people in authority forget how powerful and unstoppable that anger can be.”

Vanderbilt, who lived in the shadows of her philandering husband, channeled her anger to become a major figure in the women’s suffrage movement and her Rhode Island cottage became its headquarters.

malcolm gladwell-100-XL“She was a woman who threw parties and built grotesquely large houses and somehow found a way to channel [her anger] in an extremely constructive way,” Gladwell said. “If you deny people legitimacy, they will one day, by one means or another, come back and defeat you.”

Gladwell is the author of five New York Times bestsellers. He has been named one of the 100 most influential people by TIME magazine and one of the Foreign Policy’s Top Global Thinkers. He explored how ideas spread in the Tipping Point, decision making in Blink, and the roots of success in Outliers. With his latest book, David and Goliath, he examines the advantages of disadvantages, arguing that individuals have underestimated the value of adversity and over-estimated the value of privilege.