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Why Recruiters Should Read Malcolm Gladwell's “David and Goliath”

Clare Hopping

Malcolm GladwellThe latest from social scientist and best-selling author Gladwell examines what makes an innovator. Learn how the current president of Goldman Sachs went straight from selling aluminium siding to Wall Street

If you're in HR, you're interested in people, and would likely appreciate the entertaining psychological and sociological analysis that defines the work of longtime New Yorker staff-writer, Malcolm Gladwell. The celebrated Canadian storyteller bats five for five for books on the New York Times Best Seller list, with scholarly non-fiction that explores the forces underlying the world as we know it.

Famous for making unexpected connections between pop culture, historical events, and academic studies, Gladwell examines human behaviour. In Blink: the Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005), he probes the subconscious process behind decision-making; in Outliers: The Story of Success (2008), he employs case studies to support a kind of cultural formula for making the most of human potential.

Despite mixed critical reception, his most recent book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (2013) is especially worth a look as Gladwell turns his explaining eye to what makes a leader, the kind of personality that changes the world. He lends insight on innovation by tracing the life and times of innovators at pivotal moments in history including today.

A review by Scholarly Kitchen gives David and Goliath a tempered endorsement, and speculates ultimately that “two general dispositions” will “benefit from this book”: first, “those people who naturally and habitually push against the status quo” for whom the book will likely be “affirming and energizing,” and second, people who “have to deal with innovators” and want to better understand what drives them.

Who betters fits into the second category than recruiters in today's changing work culture.

As Gladwell tackles the landscape of innovation, it is by no accident that he uses two of the best hiring stories of our times to illustrate his points.

The Untold Story of David and Goliath

At its most essential, Gladwell's new book re-evaluates how society perceives advantage and disadvantage, using the popular notion of David and Goliath as a frame. In common parlance, the phrase “David and Goliath” generally refers to an underdog and an opponent that has all the resources.

In the famous fight between giant and puny shepherd, the giant seems to have access to all the resources of size and strength, but unexpectedly meets his end when the young shepherd manages to hit him between the eyes with a stone out of his sling.

Gladwell performs a close reading of this Biblical story to suggest on the contrary how with his long-range style of fighting David had the upper-hand from the start. He identifies how what seem like strengths of Goliath, huge size and swords, are actually weaknesses: while David can hit him square on the forehead delivering a deadly blow from a good ways off, Goliath's size slows him down and his weapons only allow him to defend himself at close range—as Gladwell says, “He's a sitting duck.” Hear Gladwell retell the tale for himself in his TED talk.

You Wouldn't Wish Dyslexia on Your Child...Or Would You?

David and Goliath in historical context are meant to illustrate how what seem like advantages aren't always advantageous, and what seem like disadvantages can actually be great assets.

Though Gladwell begins with this story from 3,000 years ago when Israel was in its infancy, in the chapters that follow his points about rethinking strength come down to an examination of key figures from modern times, a “disadvantaged” few who go on to be incredibly successful. One section on the book focuses on contemporary entrepreneurs with dyslexia who Gladwell argues had to compensate in ways that paved their way to greatness.

As he tells the surprising stories of these leaders, Gladwell returns to the refrain, “You wouldn't wish dyslexia on your child. Or would you?”, wondering whether there isn't something desirable about the way they were forced to meet challenges. For example, he shares how well-known lawyer David Boies becomes an incredible listener to compensate for difficulty reading, and these listening skills make him one of the most formidable litigators working in the American courts today.

Two of the these success stories hinge on hiring scenarios, innovators leveraging themselves against interviewers.

Brian Grazer, Hollywood Producer

American film and television producer Brian Grazer co-founded Imagine Entertainment with Ron Howard in 1986. His IMDB producing credits include iconic films like “Apollo 13” and “A Beautiful Mind” all the way through to more recent TV sensations like “Arrested Development” and “Friday Night Lights.” In total the hit parade has grossed an impressive $13 billion since Grazer came aboard.

Gladwell tracks how early struggles with dyslexia and the will to survive nurtured in Grazer the ability to talk his way out of any situation; he had very refined negotiating skills from a young age.

His first job was in the mailroom at Warner Brothers. His boss at the time gave him access to an office, and Grazer seized the opportunity. First, he made use of the available materials to get himself up to speed, then he started making calls from the office introducing himself as “Brian Grazer of Warner Brothers.” He didn't close every deal, but nobody asked whether he was an intern when he spoke with such confidence, and eventually he accrued himself a body of professional work that allowed him to move up the ladder.

Gary Cohn, President and COO of Goldman Sachs

Gary Cohn is the current President and COO of investment banking and securities firm Goldman Sachs.

Back in 2009, Cohn gave an inspirational commencement speech for his alma mater, American University's Kogod School of Business, in which he is up front about dealing with dyslexia (remarking how it's not advised for dyslexics to read out loud in front of a crowd as he does) and in which he tells the unlikely story of how he got started on Wall Street.

In a familiar turn of events, Cohn graduated into a depressed economy and took up residence on his parents' couch; after a few months, his father asked what he planned to do with his life and demanded that he get a job. To satisfy dad, Cohn started selling aluminium siding at the home-products division of United States Steel Corporation, but he had what he calls a “passion for financial markets,” and by Thanksgiving of his graduation year, he'd make his way into trading.

A Life-Changing Cab-Ride and a White Lie

One Friday afternoon, Cohn asked for time off from US Steel Corp. to visit New York City. When granted, he made a beeline for the Commodities Exchange where he stood for several hours by the security station on the trading floor, looking for a way to penetrate. Almost ready to give up, on the way out he overheard an executive-type saying he needs a cab to the airport. Cohn approached him saying that he was also headed to the airport and might they share a cab. The man agreed and Cohn spent the 45-minute car-ride that followed trying to get a job.

The man grilled young Cohn about financial markets and as he puts it “he must have passed” because by the end of the conversation he was invited back for an interview the following Monday. In a crucial moment, the man had explained how he needs someone who really understands options and Cohn had promised, “I'm your guy.” In reality, Cohn knew nothing about options but read Lawrence G. McMillan’s “Options as a Strategic Investment” four times to prepare for the interview and got the job.

Cohn started work for COM and in 1990 was recruited by Goldman. Business Insider told the full story back in 2011.

Controversial Figures

A lot of Gladwell's star examples are controversial figures. No one's denying Cohn's success but neither are they denying his bristly personality. Colleagues at the New York Mercantile Exchange where Cohn served on the board call him out for being “abrasive,” according to a Bloomberg profile, so for that matter does the second section of his Wikipedia profile, “Personality and work style.”

Friends call Cohn's toughness positive, saying “an executive can't be all peaches and cream.” For what it's worth, Bloomberg describes how at 6ft 3in and 15.7-stone, Cohn can be “intimidating,” and how, according to former colleagues, “he would sometimes hike up one leg, plant his foot on a trader’s desk, his thigh close to the employee’s face, and ask how markets were doing.”

Back in 2011, Bloomberg gathered perhaps this attitude was holding Cohn back from promotion inside of Goldman, but Gladwell points to how personality is a large part of what makes him successful.

Faking It Until You Make It

Gladwell argues dyslexia accustomed Cohn and others to outsider status; in addition to encouraging them to develop strategies for survival, this experience taught them they had nothing to lose and the necessity of taking high-risk chances. They became leader-types when they freed themselves to take social risks.

The social risk in this case was telling a white lie so they could “fake it until they make it.” Grazer didn't work at Warner Brothers and Cohn didn't have experience with stock options. The Scholarly Kitchen review noted how faking it until making it is “a common thread behind success (and probably explains the “impostor syndromeso many adults feel at some point in their careers)” but one that “many traditionalists find hard to accept.” Indeed, faking it til you make it should be a recruiter's worst nightmare, but in this case, Gladwell shows why it should be a recruiter's dream.

To be fair by the time the Goldman recruiter found Cohn in 1990 he had already started “making it” at the Commodities Exchange. Besides, in this digital age, it may not be possible for candidates to front knowledge and experience in the same way when the recruiter need only search Google to verify background. But maybe that shouldn't be a relief, which is to say, maybe recruiters needn't get bogged down beyond reasonable verification. Maybe these stories should be lessons in getting to know candidates beyond their CVs.

What to Make of the Critical Reception of David and Goliath

When Little, Brown and Company published David and Goliath last fall, critics get down on Gladwell for doing what they saw as the same thing over and over, for being a kind of Goliath in his own right.

The New York Times criticised him for instilling a false sense of collective misconception, for spreading common knowledge disguised as groundbreaking insight. The WSJ review bemoaned how “what he presents are mostly just intriguing possibilities and musings about human behaviour, but what his publisher sells them as, and what his readers may incorrectly take them for, are lawful, causal rules that explain how the world really works.”

It's true that Gladwell likes to introduce concepts as if he's dropping truth. He hasn't come upon some new formula for leadership: an ounce of hardship here, a dash of gumption there. He hasn't discovered a causation between dyslexia and entrepreneurship; at best he's identified a thought-provoking correlation.

It Shouldn't Change the Way You Think About Everything

At many points Gladwell attempts to undermine the modern day Goliaths of our perception, and he returns a few times to the example of Ivy League schools, out to demonstrate alternative paths to success. This is an important lesson, one that Cohn hammers home in his 2009 commencement speech when he tells the audience of Kogod Business School grads that they have as much education as any of their contemporaries. He says, “You may not have the confidence they have, but confidence is the easiest thing to fix."

In one section however, Gladwell argues that going to an Ivy League could be a disadvantage, that a female student who chose Brown University should have attended a less prestigious school so she could have been a bigger fish in a small pond. Critics have seized upon this thread as a weakness, wondering why Gladwell would have the student decide against giving herself access to resources. Even Cohn acknowledges how at Goldman Sachs his class of interns consists primarily of Ivy Leaguers when he's telling the commencement audience how much pleasure it brings him that four out of five securities executives leading the intern Q&A panel did not attend those schools.


Reading about the connection between a difficult childhood and perseverance or dyslexia and creativity, recruiters are not going to decide that they should only hire people who bluff on their resumes, but they might have newfound appreciation for candidates who do.

One would hope that Gladwell readers are smart enough that they know better than to look for a new set of hard-and-fast rules by which to judge human behaviour; they're reading because they understand there are none and their thinking evolves when they explore nuances of human behaviour.

David and Goliath has potential to broaden horizons with regard to what shapes a leader and the shape that leaders take. The territory covered and the approach used invite readers to think differently in a space that's relevant to personality and the changing times. Gladwell is interested to change the way readers think and he's out to be thought-provoking. He's successful in that, and tells some incredible stories in the process.

Clare Hopping

Clare Hopping has been involved in the recruitment of both full-time employees and freelance staff for ten years. She specialises in recruiting staff via social media and digital platforms.