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What's An Underdog? A reply to the New York Times
David Morey -- Dedicated to Helping Companies Win David Morey -- Dedicated to Helping Companies Win
Washington, DC
Tuesday, October 2, 2012

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David E. Morey

Last week's compelling New York Times op-ed, "Underdogged" by Jill Lepore made good points about the history of the word and its roots in America's legacy. But our experience in working with underdog candidates and companies for over twenty years, and our book, The Underdog Advantage (McGraw-Hill), argues that the word underdog is vastly more powerful as an attitude than as a label.

So what's an underdog? Typically, it's a less-favored competitor or candidate, an oppressed person, a team or business facing a more powerful opponent.

Historically, if you were a Civil War soldier, "The Under Dog in the Fight" was a song you sang upon returning to camp, when you weren't marching, digging trenches or avoiding bullets. "The Under Dog in the Fight," a poem published in 1859, and set to music in 1862, celebrates the losing dog in a fight between two dogs. The poem is colloquial and uncomplicated, a true expression of popular culture.

By the late nineteenth century, "under dogs" were the poor and downtrodden persons at the bottom of the social order—for example, in the post-Civil-War writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass. By the early twentieth century, labor spokesmen were using the term "underdog" in referencing common workingmen who were at the mercy of corporate robber barons. By 1930, the word "underdog" had morphed into its full modern definition: "The person or entity with the least power, and least chance of winning, in any situation."

Not surprisingly, politicians also got tagged with the underdog label because Americans are instinctively sympathetic to underdogs—and because it never hurts to downplay expectations.

And that's when our underdog story takes an interesting twenty-first century twist in Ms. Lepore's "Underdogged." Her op-ed summarizes the history of the term and looks at Mitt Romney's recent claim to the title of underdog. She notes that Romney and his supporters have worked hard to portray him as the underdog—observing as recently as August that "the Republican nominee was somehow the underdog at his own convention," and she concludes that Romney has been branding himself as an underdog to earn voter sympathy.

But here is the key point: Branding or labeling oneself an underdog is less important than thinking and acting like an underdog—in other words, the label matters less than the bias for fighting from behind and playing offense.

How a candidate or business acts, then, is the crucial difference. If you're an underdog who wants to win in today's economy you must, in the words of the old Avis slogan "try harder." Today, underdogs love change and at worst they embrace it and at best they lead it. They are as opportunistic as a hungry raccoon—focusing on the goal of succeeding and winning in their respective marketplace.

Whereas incumbents or "top dogs" today play defense and sit on a lead, insurgents or underdogs move by default to the attack. They play offense.

Over the last decade, underdogs know the rules of both business and politics have changed completely. For example, in business, large incumbent corporations are particularly at risk unless they adopt new, change-focused practices that take advantage of their future marketplace realities. Underdogs, in this way, agree with Lady Gaga's core belief that every time you start work on a project, you put all the awards in the closet and forget they ever existed. Underdogs look to win each fight without resting on their laurels or past successes.

More broadly, in politics, the 2012 presidential candidate who goes beyond the underdog label to assume the underdog attitude will win this week's debate—and next month's election. For real underdogs, in business and politics, every day is a new beginning and every fight is one more reason to play offense.


David E. Morey is founder and CEO of DMG, Inc., co-author of the award-winning book, The Underdog Advantage and advised the presidential campaign of Barack Obama in 2008.

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