In Malcom Gladwell’s book, ‘David and Goliath’, he refers to the ‘principle of legitimacy’. These principles are the basis (or lack thereof) for why one group will allow themselves to be subject to another. The principles stress that it is the behaviour of the leaders that determines whether or not the followers will follow (or at least whether the followers see the leaders as being legitimate; see note  below).
The three principles of legitimacy
- those being ruled need to feel that they have a voice in the arrangement (e.g. no taxation without representation)
- the rules must be predictable and consistent (e.g. rule of law and due process)
- the rules must be consistently applied and appear to be fair to all being asked to follow the rules (e.g. equality before the law)
Kindergartens, Northern Ireland and the Jim Crow Laws
The writing brilliance of Gladwell is that he introduces this concept first in a kindergarten and then applies it to broader contexts such as Northern Ireland or the segregation laws of American South pre-1960. In these examples, Gladwell extends the theme of his book in which an advantage may in fact be a disadvantage. For example, the British Army in Northern Ireland had the men and material to temporarily impose control over the local population but not to sustain it because they failed to establish legitimacy amongst both the protestant and catholic populations. As a result, strong armed tactics doomed the British Army to decades of occupation and directly or indirectly resulted in the death of hundreds if not thousands of combatants and civilians. The principles of legitimacy are not without their consequences.
Too much or too little legitimacy?
An interesting speculation that Gladwell does not discuss is how much or how little of each are needed based on varying circumstances. After all there are circumstances where one of the three is reduced to nearly zero (for example, try asking for a voice in the arrangement during the first week of army boot camp or from the prison warden). Alternatively, is there such a thing as too much of these principles? Do they break down when taken to the extreme? Have you ever been ‘surveyed’ to death by an employer asking about your degree of motivation or engagement with the company? Or how about rules being applied too consistently such that the application actually erodes the legitimacy of the organization (think of a ten-year child old being expelled from schools for making imaginary guns out of their fingers; a zero tolerance policy gone horribly wrong; see note  for one example).
The take away from this aspect of Gladwell’s book is that these three principles of legitimacy are just that – principles. They are not hard and fast rules and leadership is in their application rather than their memorization. Here are some of my thoughts on considerations before over-applying one of the three principles of legitimacy:
- A voice in the arrangement:
- Ultimate accountability cannot be delegated away however. For trekkies, Captain Picard solicited his crew’s opinion but he still made the decision. Alternatively, calling for a vote and a study group when the pilot orders everyone into the airplane’s life rafts is ill-advised.
- Coercion can compensate for a voice in the arrangement, but only within short time periods or overwhelming force. Thus the soldier in the boot camp knows that his time is short and the ultimate value outweighs the immediate discomfort. Conversely, segregation worked not only because of the power of the whites in the South but also a lack of an united front amongst the blacks (see note 2 below for a bit of a back story behind a famous civil rights photo).
- A voice does not equal gaming the system. Thus wheel the squeaky wheel gets the grease but it also violates the other two rules of fairness and consistency.
- Predictable and consistent and 3. Consistently applied and appear to be fair to all being asked to follow the rules
- To be predictable and consistent, a system needs to quickly and fairly establish two things: 1) how to change the rules and 2) how to allow for exceptions while disallowing unfair advantage.
- Principles 1 and these two are inter-twined as having a voice in the exceptions is critical. Think about a handicap parking spot. We allow society (the leaders) to dictate that we give up the best parking spot because as a society we have had a voice (directly or indirectly) that this is a legitimate use of power. At the same time though if choice spots were given out based on political affiliation or personal relations, the majority of the voices would be against the privilege.
- The sense of fairness is culturally biased. For example, in traditional Islamic families, the opinion of the father or grandfather is nearly law. Thus it may seen fair to deny a girl a right to an education or marry a non-muslim in this context. In the secular West, these would seem patently unfair and sexist.
Lessons for the business reader
For business leaders, is there anything new here? Yes and No. Societies with the greatest longevity have tended to adhere to these principles. At the same time though, these principles are also the hallmark of good leadership and good governance. The take away is this, if you want to build an enduring organization that will outlast you remember that those being led:
- Seek both a voice in the decision but also expect leadership when leadership is needed.
- Expect rules to be fair, predictable and consistent but not at the expense of common sense.
- Know that part of leadership is in recognizing and explaining the exceptions without the system falling victim to being gamed or exploited.
In other words, leadership is still hard. Nevertheless, authors such as Malcom Gladwell help us to challenge our assumptions and become better, and more legitimate, leaders.
Notes and some addition comments
. p. 207: “When people in authority want the rest of us to behave, it matters – first and foremost – how they behave.
. Milford 5th-grader suspended for pointing imaginary gun, as reported Nov 19, 2014,
. Gladwell devotes nearly a full chapter to the back story behind the following picture which was a turning point for the American Civil Rights movement in 1963. However, there more in the photo than meets the eye: p. 192: “The boy in Bill Hudson’s famous photograph is Walter Gadsden. He was a sophomore at Parker High in Birmingham, six foot tall and fifteen years old. He wasn’t a marcher. He was a spectator. He came from a conservative black family that owned tow newspapers in Birmingham and Atlanta that had been sharply critical of (Martin Luther) King.”