A Hiring Paradox for Leaders: Shamans Instead of Witch-Doctors

The hardest part of leadership is developing the so-called “soft skills.” That is the message we get from such diverse sources as Adam Grant (Give and Take), Amy Edmondson (Teaming), and Andy Grove’s classic for managers who have difficulty with the soft-side of leadership, High Output Management. Who has the time?!?In the conclusion of their book The Witch Doctors, John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge offer a solution for leaders who are seeking to develop their soft skills: be selective. The same conclusion is reached by Paul Babiak and Robert Hare in their book, Snakes in Suits. These two books also illustrate the riskiest two aspects of the leadership paradox. One must try their best to avoid working with the ~10% of snakes-in-suits out there. But getting the help you need means exposing yourself to the sea of witch-doctors.

Here, I hope to offer you a specific way to be selective, whether for hiring someone into your firm or hiring an expert to help you and your firm.

Seeing the Paradox

In order to apply soft skills, one must develop them. But in order to develop them, one must identify them. And in order to identify them, one must trust the people who have spent their careers helping others to identify and develop those skills. This hiring paradox is multi-layered.

When hiring external experts, how can you tell the difference between a shaman and a witch-doctor? Especially since you may be attempting to develop the soft skills, the very skills that help you differentiate the true “shamans” from the money-grabbing “witch doctors”? How do you even begin when so many “witch doctors” believe they are “shamans”?

I recall being at a prestigious coaching conference held at an ivy-league institution (one where some true shamans were presenting) and seeing far too many witch-doctors. For a time, I considered dropping the term “executive coach” from my title. In other words: “I get it.” I have seen the landscape and found it wanting.

“This is why so many leaders do not develop their soft-skills,” I thought to myself, “they have been bitten by a witch-doctor!” The thing we often seek is the thing we may need to make better decisions about whom we can and should trust.

Leaders end up appealing to their trusted networks. Due to market forces, then, the most successful people and the most trusted shamans have created a two-tier system. The best and the best get together and make magic while the rest play roulette.

Facing the Paradox

But there is another solution to the paradox of the hardest thing requiring the softer skills. There is a growing field of executive coaches and true shamans that use the science of adult development to identify, grow, and apply the soft skills that leaders need. They use “Subject/Object Theory” and it’s applied version, the Immunity to Change coaching method.

It has been useful in such diverse places as the hedge fund Bridgewater, Roche pharmaceuticals, and the CIA. Originally, it is applied as part of executive coaching programs. But once these organizations get a taste of the power of Subject/Object Theory, they pull for more. Because it is based on a science that has over 100 years of research behind it. It is a “soft” science that correctly predicted the “hard” scientists of the brain were wrong to declare that humans stop growing in their early 20’s because the brain was essentially fully baked.

They quietly continued their research as the neuroscientists caught up to them. First it was neuroplasticity. Then the discovery that new neurons can indeed grow well into adulthood. Lately, research on mindfulness meditators showed their cortex can increase in thickness by a staggering amount. (See the work of Sara Lazar for more on this.)

This soft-science has been flying under the radar for decades, as the less valuable but more friendly applications from personality psychology have exploded. The widespread appeal of Myers-Briggs (e.g., “DISC”) and Big-Five Factor models (a.k.a., “O.C.E.A.N.”) comes from the fact that they are not offering value judgments. People are neither better nor worse, just different!

Objectifying the Paradox

But all good leaders know that they must make value judgments all the time. Because of this, many end up applying technical tools (like O.C.E.A.N.) for adaptive change (like hiring, coaching, and team-building). That doesn’t work in the long-run (but the check clears before the ends start to fray).

Applied Adult Development Theory – especially applied Subject/Object Theory – offers leaders a way to better manage the paradox of developing their soft-skills without having to rely on the most trusted (and most expensive) shamans, all while mitigating the risk of working with a witch-doctor.

But what about hiring internally? What about those people who will work with you daily and represent your firm? Most of the industry-standard interviews base all of their evaluations on O.C.E.A.N. Using a personality type assessment like this can help you discover if a candidate is the right fit for the role you seek. But no personality assessment can help you discern if you are hiring someone who can “own” the work responsibly. Including the ones that cost $6,000 – $20,000.

Managing the Paradox

And so as with hiring external consultants, we are back to references from trusted networks. Back in the same paradox. The solution is from the under-appreciated field of adult development. Using adult-development-based measures can help leaders to hire the right people and is a cost-effective addition to any recruiting process. It helps you manage the hiring paradox of leadership.

The first step is the hardest part – identifying a pool of potential shamans amongst the sea of witch-doctors. My goal has been to help you take this first step better. You are much more likely to discover a true shaman when you focus your search on coaches and consultants who have a solid background in Subject/Object Theory. There are well-known organizations that can afford to scrutinize the landscape, and they trust the true shamans of adult development.

To better manage the paradox of the hardest aspect of developing the soft skills, be more selective by drawing from the pool where the water is warmest – the people who spend their lives applying Subject/Object Theory using the Immunity to Change coaching method.