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Malcolm Gladwell’s Future: Authority Ranking vs. Authority Appeal

| Friday June 24th, 2011 | 0 Comments

Bear with me on a long winded post. You have to be long winded when you’re digesting a Malcolm Gladwell Speech.

I’m here at Ford’s world headquarters in Dearborn, MI, wrapping up the “Forward with Ford” conference, a self described “consumer trends” media event wherein Ford intends to provoke conversation about today’s major societal trends, and describe how the company plans to respond to them smartly and proactively. It’s classic and broad stakeholder engagement.

The variety of invited media has been particularly impressive. Mommy bloggers outnumber car bloggers at least 2 to 1, with the rest made up of lifestyle, tech, green, and other media, large and small. Even as things got rolling, the amount of productive dialog between attendes was often as interesting as that coming from Ford.

Gladwell keynoted the opening session with a metaphor for the audience on the role of authority in society. Drawing from recent New Yorker articles, Gladwell outlined a generational shift toward standing up to authority, rather than meekly accepting status quo and social or corporate hierarchy as immobile. He reffered specifically to the year 1975, when Marvin Miller, a man hired to run the professional baseball players union, had the audacity to stand up to management to break down what, at that time, could only be described as paternalistic rip-offs to the players. (Things like being paid $175 for lifetime baseball card rights).

The lesson, asking for what you want, even if it seems to fly in the face of authority, is a relatively new phenomenon in society.  The breaking down of so-called “Authority Ranking” as a societal norm is, Gladwell argues, related to more than just better salaries for ball players.  It’s also the driver behind civil rights, feminism, political change, and so on. More specifically, it has profoundly affected the consumer marketplace, leading to today’s immeasurable variety of goods and options – where companies have learned to listen to customers instead of telling them what the options will be.

Today, with a vastly more complex economy and an aging demographic made up of the generations who so audaciously rocked the boat in the past, a new trend is emerging that seeks to “appeal to authority” more so than to simply knock it down.

For example – when hackers recently took down huge portions of Sony, Sega and Citibank’s networks – stealing millions of credit card numbers, the societal response was not to tear down such titans, but rather to demand of them a higher degree of confidence – to appeal that authority actually be built back up, but in a way that is trustworthy and meaningful for the consumer.

The key thesis was captured on video here:

My take-a-way:

I’d argue that today’s sustainable business movement has a lot to do with both trends.  On the one hand, the environmental and social movements have their roots firmly in an activist past who saw the operations of many businesses (often rightly so) as walls to be knocked down and brought under the control of saner laws and regulations.   Likewise, the green consumer movement rewards companies for listening (Clorox introducing GreenWorks, Wal Mart reinventing their supply chain) even if some of it is still greenwash.

Finally, the appeal to authority, in the sustainable business context, is the recognition that companies large and small are all part of an ecosystem of economic, societal, and environmental challenges the likes of which we’ve never seen before.  Authority, including large corporations, will play a crucial role.

Asking for what we want, as conscious consumers, investors, activists, employees, and management, is one of the keys to corporate transformation. It’s still often overlooked – especially internally – as corporate structure remains a last bastion of old school authority ranking culture. We do this while simultaneously appealling to companies to recognize their role in the greater ecosystem of responsibility. Such systemic thinking really is what sustainable business is all about.


(full disclosure, the conference, including travel has been paid for by Ford)


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