Malcolm Gladwell Says The Best Managers 'Harbour And Protect Obnoxious And Brilliant People'

Malcolm gladwellAmy Sussman/Getty ImagesMalcolm Gladwell: ‘Protect the brilliant people from the people they drive crazy.’

Malcolm Gladwell is something of an apologist for obnoxiousness.

As he writes in “David and Goliath,” many of the most successful people in the world aren’t too pleasant to be around.

He maintains that IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad became a $US3.8 billion success story because he’s disagreeable he doesn’t need validation from his peers.

Gladwell owes his own success to his disagreeableness.

“What I try to do — try to be — is unafraid of making a fool of myself,” he said in an interview, emphasising that losing his “fear of standing corrected” has been necessary to his growth as a writer.

All this should be instructive to managers, he recently told Quartz.

“I am constantly hearing about a person seen inside organisations as being disruptive, but is nonetheless highly valuable to the organisation,” he said.

And he thinks these prickly people need to be cared for — not only for the good of the organisation, but, in some cases, for the good of humanity.

Gladwell provided the example of Dr. Emil J. Freireich, who waged an epic battle against childhood leukemia in the 1950s, a disease that had a 90% mortality rate with kids in his hospital.

They were dying gruesome, bloody deaths. White-uniformed nurses would go home covered in red.

Freireich was a “tempestuous, difficult, impossible man,” Gladwell said.

As difficult as he was to work with, Freireich was indomitable in his search for a cure.

The doctor did all sorts of things against the “best practices” of his day to fight childhood leukemia, like conducting blood transfusions to raise platelet count or using four kinds of chemotherapy when one wasn’t working.

“Some of the clinical associates — the junior doctors assisting on the ward — refused to take part,” Gladwell wrote. “They thought Freireich was insane.”

Amid all the death and doubt, Freireich pressed on. And he succeeded.

Gladwell writes in “David and Goliath”:

In 1965, Freireich and [his partner Emil] Frei published “Progress and Perspectives in the Chemotherapy of Acute Leukemia” in Advances in Chemotherapy, announcing that they had developed a successful treatment for childhood leukemia. Today, the cure rate for this form of cancer is more than 90 per cent. The number of children whose lives have been saved by the efforts of Freireich and Frei and the researchers who followed in their footsteps is in the many, many thousands.

This was made possible, Gladwell says, because Freireich had a boss at the National Institutes of Health who made it possible to do his work fighting leukemia.

He knew his job was to harbour and protect obnoxious and brilliant people,” Gladwell said. “He woke up in the morning knowing it was his job to protect the brilliant people from the people they drive crazy.”

Add that to the list of things great bosses do.

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