The Professional Convention Management Association closed out its national gathering at the Dallas Convention Center this afternoon with a slick keynote luncheon that telegraphed to the hundreds of event planners: Watch closely, this is how it's done.
The food presentation, set design and eight big projection screens all made for an impressive show. Warm-up speakers danced across the big, well-lit stage telling jokes about Twitter into flesh-colored headset mics. And it was all just a prelude to the knock-your-socks-off speaker they'd lined up to deliver the keynote: New Yorker writer and go-to guru Malcolm Gladwell.
Gladwell never came within a mile of the session's title, "Developing Your Story of Success," which, really, is just fine by us. Instead, he launched right in by reminding the room what a bummer this financial crisis has been. (A point given a more upbeat treatment in this PCMA promo that was playing in the hallway, a must-watch if that now-infamous "One More Thing..." Dallas tribute left you wishing for more Deborah Sexton.)
From there, he did 45 fascinating, if rarely uplifting, minutes on the Civil War, medical diagnosis and the fall of Bear Stearns to illustrate the Gladwellian unlikely truth that knowing more doesn't make you a better decision-maker.
But for a slow trickle out the ballroom doors toward shuttles bound for D/FW International, Gladwell had the audience's rapt attention as he spun the tale of Union General "Fightin' Joe" Hooker and the Battle of Chancellorsville, the surprise Confederate victory that launched Lee's advance to Gettysburg.
Gladwell sandwiched analytical points about Hooker's intelligence-gathering operation with theatrical flourishes, channeling the general at his most self-assured: "May God have mercy on Lee, for I will have none," Gladwell boomed.
Despite knowing all about his enemy, and having them surrounded, Hooker was also blinded by overconfidence and failed to prepare for a surprise attack from behind his ranks. "He is a prisoner of miscalibration," Gladwell related. "The world is changing, and he doesn't see it."
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Hooker lost his post for screwing up so massively, "That being a moment in history when if you screwed up, you were fired," Gladwell pointed out, drawing laughs and bringing his parable right back to the high drama of today's banking world.
Taking an anecdote from the fall of Bear Stearns, as told in William D. Cohan's 2009 book House of Cards, Gladwell pointed out how completely CEO Jimmy Kane, and other Wall Street executives, encouraged by wild success and the reams of data at their disposal, became "prisoners of their overconfidence."
"In times of crisis, we want our leaders to show expertise," Gladwell said. "That's not what we really need. In times of crisis, we need our leaders to be humble.
With that, he thanked his audience, walked quickly down an aisle of lunch tables, and disappeared behind a curtain.