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Saturday, August 21, 2010

David and Goliath: A Cautionary Tale

People comfortably refer to commonly known stories in a shorthand way of communicating an idea they want to share.

The David and Goliath story is used this way frequently, mostly by people who have lost some kind of conflict and don't want to take responsibility for the loss. They blame others, sincerely.

When referencing this story, the loser of the conflict blames someone bigger than himself: Goliath--a name that represents any adversary and is routinely considered "The Bad Guy."

For Goliath refers to a giant in the Bible who taunted the people of God--people who were afraid to fight for their God, except for a small shepherd boy named David. Goliath's slander of his God offended the shepherd boy, and David took action.

Using the type of slingshot he employed regularly to run off big animals that were after the sheep in his care, David loaded a slingshot with one carefully chosen rock to fell the giant by nailing him square in the head. The giant tumbled. David was victorious. The smaller Good Guy beat the Big Bad Guy because--and here's the implication--the smaller Good Guy had God on his side and his intentions were honorable. He was fighting for the honor of his God.

That's the story from the Bible, but when businesspeople refer to this story, in their haste to justify themselves, they often get the story backwards.

They use it to imply that the giant--the adversary in business and often politics (because politicians use it too when they lose an election) was too big. They were outsized; the battle was lost before it began! They report: "It was a David and Goliath situation." And I lost.

But if it were a genuine David and Goliath situation, the good guy would have won. The reference doesn't work on any level.

The reference to David and Goliath is meant to justify the speaker's failure--to put it in a heroic context. But it doesn't.

Instead the speaker simply looks like not only a loser in business but someone who isn't thinking clearly and hasn't really read the story he's referencing because he is using it wrong.

That's easy to do when the culture perpetuates sound bite ideas that refer to a broader context, like stories of success and failure-- in this instance, from The Bible.

When this happens, a true cautionary tale emerges: we should use stories carefully and mindfully as illustrations to back up what we mean to communicate. When we don't, we inadvertently tell a very different truth. We telegraph to others that we are ignorant and talk too much without thinking about what we say.

In the workplace where good business practices are built upon credible reporting of facts, that's just not good business.

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