Gardner, Extraordinary Minds, 111
Perhaps the most striking feature in the biographies of Influencers is their willingness, often from a very young age, to challenge authority, to take risks in order to achieve their goals. Emblematic in this sphere was the future General of the Army George C. Marshall. By inclination an unobstrusive individual, Marshall was nonetheless fearless in asserting himself. When barely twenty years of age, he barged into the office of then President William McKinley and urged that he be allowed to take an examination so that he could be commissioned as a second lieutenant. The first time he met General Pershing, head of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in the First World War, he criticized him publicly; shortly thereafter Marshall was named Pershing’s principal aide. And the first time Marshall found himself at a small meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he took the risk of disagreeing aloud with the president. Then Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau quipped to Marshall at the end of the meeting, “Well, it’s been nice knowing you.” But true to form, Marshall was invited to become Army Chief of Staff just a few months later.
In most cases, so far as I can ascertain, these confrontations are not set up just to parade one’s keen judgment. Nor is the future Influencer unnecessarily abrasive. Rather, it seems that [the Influencer] truly believes he has mastered the facts of a matter and can contribute substantively to its resolution. Something pushes him over the edge and he speaks up, thereby risking his position in the group. We of course cannot know about those individuals whose public challenges result in banishment or death. But a sense that one is an equal, that one is somehow authorized to express one’s deep beliefs, emerges as an important early marker of the individual who will eventually come to occupy positions of authority.
Perhaps the most important formative experience for the future Influencer is the opportunity to challenge authority without being rejected totally. Such a challenge is most likely to succeed if the merits of the case are well founded and if the challenge is brought off with the proper blend of confidence and humility. Again, formulas seem implausible here; but it may well be important both to have observed roles models who effect this kind of challenge and to have had local opportunities to practice measured defiance. Even Hitler had to negotiate countless barroom controversies before he could successfully defy better-known individuals who occupied official positions.