David and Goliath – A Story About Context

The story of David and Goliath is most often quoted as an analogy used to illustrate a perceived underdog overcoming a challenger or foe considered much stronger and more likely to win.

To many it is a story of courage in the face of doubt, and determination and faith in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.  To others, if you’re able to see as they do, it is a story of very intelligent leadership and confidence established through understanding context.

In his book David and Goliath – Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Malcolm Gladwell shares that while David was certainly in an interesting and potentially compromising position, he was not actually at the great disadvantage we often consider him to be.  In fact, Gladwell shares that it was David that had the upper hand in the exchange.  Certainly a complete turnaround to what it appears to be as we read the original account.

How can Gladwell make such statements?  The key is that as he decided to dig down into the details, he decided to ask some insightful and revealing questions.

Today’s article is not about good and evil, faith or the lack thereof, or even how the little guy can win.  Rather it is how we might be a little more like Saul, the King of Israel at the time of the battle where David used all of his talents, being shored up by his faith, to ensure that a war was averted.

So what did King Saul come to realise, and David know that we don’t?  Gladwell shares the following:

“Ancient armies had three kinds of warriors. The first was cavalry—armed men on horseback or in chariots. The second was infantry—foot soldiers wearing armour and carrying swords and shields. The third were projectile warriors, or what today would be called artillery: archers and, most important, slingers. Slingers had a leather pouch attached on two sides by a long strand of rope. They would put a rock or a lead ball into the pouch, swing it around in increasingly wider and faster circles, and then release one end of the rope, hurling the rock forward.  And David was a practiced, even expert, slinger.

Modern Use Of The Sling
Slings are still being used today in the middle east conflicts and uprisings

Slinging took an extraordinary amount of skill and practice. But in experienced hands, the sling was a devastating weapon…Projectile warriors were deadly against infantry, because a big lumbering soldier, weighed down with armour, was a sitting duck for a slinger who was launching projectiles from a hundred yards away.”

Goliath on the other hand was a heavy infantry man.

“[Goliath] thinks that he is going to be engaged in a duel with another heavy-infantryman…he says, “Come to me, that I may give your flesh to the birds of the heavens and the beasts of the field,” the key phrase is “come to me.” He means come right up to me so that we can fight at close quarters.  He assumes David is going to fight him hand to hand.

David, however, has no intention of honouring the rituals of single combat. When he tells Saul that he has killed bears and lions as a shepherd, he does so not just as testimony to his courage but to make another point as well: that he intends to fight Goliath the same way he has learned to fight wild animals—as a projectile warrior.”

“He runs toward Goliath, because without armour he has speed and manoeuvrability. He puts a rock into his sling, and whips it around and around, faster and faster at six or seven revolutions per second, aiming his projectile at Goliath’s forehead—the giant’s only point of vulnerability. Eitan Hirsch, a ballistics expert with the Israeli Defense Forces, recently did a series of calculations showing that a typical-size stone hurled by an expert slinger at a distance of thirty-five meters would have hit Goliath’s head with a velocity of thirty-four meters per second—more than enough to penetrate his skull and render him unconscious or dead. “Goliath had as much chance against David,” the historian Robert Dohrenwend writes, “as any Bronze Age warrior with a sword would have had against an [opponent] armed with a .45 automatic pistol.” ”

If we add to this the additional information Gladwell learns about Goliath, which space does not allow here, a reality is revealed that is not as close to what we had once thought it to be.

And so we begin to see the importance of context and real information.

It is remarkable how many sessions I sit in with leaders and leadership teams where I discover how many of their biggest decisions are based on perception and feeling instead of measurable data and information.  Even in instances where the data is readily available much of it is ignored.  An example of this I shared in another article that appeared in this column entitled “Three Mistakes CEOs Make”, where data collected by Dan Pink, a noted business and management author, clearly indicates that what leaders and managers do to motivate their staff is not in line with what employees are actually looking for.  Does this kind of behaviour make sense?  Not really, but it happens all around the world every day.

So how do we overcome this?  Or asked another way:  How do we get to see the whole picture before making decisions or determining a strategy?

The first thing is to understand that the cost of making the wrong decision is potentially much greater than the cost of sitting together for an hour considering all the information on hand.  A truism that comes to mind goes, “Poor planning precedes poor performance”.

The next is to follow a simple three step process:

  • Determine all the facts of the situation

1+1=2 is a fact.  “Everyone thinks he is a bad leader” is generalised perception.  There is a major difference, so don’t make the mistake of listing negative or even positive half truths here.  Ask yourself:  “What are my measurables and targets? What is happening in the micro and macro environments?  What am I required to move for this to happen?”

  • Determine all the negatives of the situation

Here you may now list all of your complaints, concerns, or worries.  Whether they are real or not doesn’t matter.  The key question to ask would be:  “What is holding/can hold us back?”  Very important to the success of this step is allowing everyone to have their say.  In other words, no one is allowed to harass a person for sharing their feelings or concerns.  Throw it all onto the table – it is all worth considering.

  • List the positives of the situation

“What are our strengths? What opportunities do we have available to us?”   Positives, like the negatives, can be perceived or real, and so we must respect all that others are sharing.

Once this is done you will have a much better view of, and attitude towards the situation in question, you will have a much greater chance of making a good decision, and will have the courage to act in spite of those negative perceptions that might have held you back before.

What ultimately led King Saul to allow David, this young shepherd boy, to walk out onto the field of battle to face off against the Philistine giant, Goliath?  The short answer:  His understanding of context.

This article appeared in the






Founder of Future CEOs™ and co-host of the Future CEOs™ show on CliffCentral.com, Gareth seeks to empower high potential young executives and ambitious entrepreneurs as they push for CEO status.

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