Guest article from Tom Harper, an except from Leading from the Lion’s Den

9.  Recruit Incomplete People – 1 Samuel

“I believe in the power of weakness.”
– Pat Buckley
I’ve interviewed and hired more programmers than any other position. Candidates have included a veteran of Desert Storm, a freakish specimen with tribal jewelry and scars, a leathery guy who I suspected liked to do “intimate” photography on the side, a genius I couldn’t steal from GE, and a lovable young man from India. I was ready to hire a sharp masters-level student who looked great in a suit and had all the trappings of a stellar teammate. But he dismally failed a simple code-writing test.

I’ve been surprised by supposedly good people after they were hired, too. A manager attempted to start an affair with an administrative assistant whose unhappy husband sent threatening e-mails to all the executives. One of our high-potential people cracked, blowing up at her boss and colleagues, blaming it on family court battles and mental instability. A disabled young man we hired continued to promise but never deliver, leaving us in an awkward position. A top manager tendered his resignation suddenly one day, citing pressure and unrealistic expectations. A home-based executive baffled us with a lack of results, so my colleague visited her home office, surprised to find a pig sty.

People, of course, are like a crapshoot – you never know what you’re going to get. With so much unpredictability, how can you improve your chances of a successful hire?

In the book of 1 Samuel, after several generations of judges, the Israelites are ready for their first king. They choose Saul, “an impressive young man. There was no one more impressive among the Israelites than he. He stood a head taller than anyone else” (1 Samuel 9:2). His reputation grows as he starts winning battles. However, his naïve errors in judgment bring calamities on his people, and his reign deteriorates.

In contrast, the youngest of eight brothers, David, tends sheep up to the day he is chosen to succeed Saul. The boy’s kingly stature emanates from his unwavering obedience to the Lord. Though he has plenty of time to mature before his coronation, the leadership tests are fierce. In his first public victory, he single-handedly slays the monstrous Goliath. But where Saul became full of himself, David remains loyal to God and is content to serve his people.

Most would’ve chosen Saul over David to be king. But the Bible teaches us to change our focus when we look at people: “[F]or man sees what is visible, but the Lord sees the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

How can we see the heart of the people we interview? I’ve been deceived by the sincerity of new hires who made excuses for lack of performance. But often, the seemingly weaker hires have outperformed the superstars. Several come to mind that started slow, but never stopped improving. Their loyalty translated into longevity and performance. I’ve learned to look harder at candidates who don’t toot their own trumpet, and come across somewhat weak despite their impressive resume.

Does that mean I’m only going to hire weak people from now on? Of course not. But an article in the Harvard Business Review called “In Praise of the Incomplete Leader” exhorts us to hire those that aren’t afraid of their weaknesses:

It’s time to end the myth of the complete leader: the flawless person at the top who’s got it all figured out. In fact, the sooner leaders stop trying to be all things to all people, the better off their organizations will be…. Only when leaders come to see themselves as incomplete—as having both strengths and weaknesses—will they be able to make up for their missing skills by relying on others. [SOURCE]

Based on this thinking, a great interview question might be, “How have you relied on others as a leader?” or “How do you compensate for your weaknesses?” Since we can’t know a person’s heart, we can look for signs of character. When he or she images only strength, there’s usually a significant weakness underneath. “[I]ncomplete leaders,” say the Harvard authors, “differ from incompetent leaders in that they … have good judgment about how they can work with others to build on their strengths and offset their limitations.”

Small organizations have a greater challenge in the hiring realm because of their limited budgets and the multiple hats they require most employees to wear. But whatever your group’s size, at least one thing will never change: both the strong and the weak will surprise you.

Leadership Principle #9 (1 Samuel)

Allow your people – and yourself – to have weaknesses. Be suspicious of those that image only strength.

“[F]or man sees what is visible, but the Lord sees the heart.”    – 1 Sa 16:7