Malcolm Gladwell has a new podcast, and you should listen to it. Titled “Revisionist History,” the medium length (under an hour) episodes focus on people and events that have been overlooked or misunderstood. The show’s tagline, “because sometimes the past deserves a second chance,” accurately summarizes how Gladwell wants to bring his literary dexterity to the world of podcasting.
He is, of course, the bestselling author of The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, and, most recently, David and Goliath, and that’s how most fans know him. His New Yorker columns, however, are what bring him the most joy, as he recently revealed in an interview on the Freakonomics podcast, and are similar in form to what he is trying to achieve with “Revisionist History.”
Gladwell is a perfect example of what Howard Gardner terms an “indirect leader.” He isn’t a CEO or leader of an organization. He doesn’t have a title that gives him authority over a particular group of people. He peddles, rather, in the art of influencing others through ideas. The best way to summarize how he embodies indirect leadership is that he makes ideas come alive.
If you’ve read any of his published works, you know that he has a unique flair for causing “a ha” moments, making connections between big ideas seem serendipitous. His writing process, though, is anything but simplistic. Behind every “a ha” moment is a process that leaders everywhere can learn from as they seek to make their own ideas come alive.
First, Gladwell employs the age-old undervalued habit of hard work. He spends an enormous amount of time engaged in personal research, tracing ideas back to their roots. He enjoys the quest of hunting down an idea and has remarked several times in interviews how much he likes doing library research. His finished product can seem serendipitous, but the process he goes through to understand and formulate his thoughts is actually rigorous and meticulous, which can be applied to any type of job or leadership.
Second, Gladwell is a master translator. Great communicators understand that to make ideas come alive, you have to be able to translate difficult concepts into ordinary parlance, making something complex seem accessible. C. S. Lewis is a great example of a master translator, employing simple metaphors and common images to explain difficult concepts. This part of the process is what truly sets Gladwell apart. Too often, leaders think others will understand their great idea or vision simply because it makes sense to them. Great communicators know that you have to drive your point home by translating it and illustrating it in a variety of ways.
Third, Gladwell is adept at weaving disparate facts and ideas into a larger story. The titles of his books serve as pithy summaries of his more complex ideas. He lures readers into his stories by giving a form of the “elevator speech,” telling you what he’s trying to communicate and how he’s going to do it. That element of foreshadowing and “setting the table” acts as a powerful narrative hook. He takes things we don’t normally associate together, and then proceeds to explain how they fit together. Along the way, his books and articles follow the narrative arc, leading you through inciting incidents, obstacles, climax, and resolution.
In order to make ideas truly come alive, leaders have to be able to navigate the worlds of both reason and imagination. We can learn from the biblical writers, who utilize myriad metaphors, images, and symbols to communicate the overarching story of God’s redemption of the world through Jesus. Whether you are a teacher, an executive, a parent, a coach, or any other type of leader, learn to appeal both to reason and imagination. The best way to learn is to see how someone else does it, which is why you should listen to “Revisionist History.”