Less than a week after Forbes pulled the curtain back a bit on Jeff Bezos and his ambitions, The New Yorker has an even deeper look at the most famous entrepreneur of the age: Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.
Zuckerberg now finds himself at a crossroads many young entrepreneurs face: Can he master the next step in his evolution as CEO? Can he help his company make the turn?
After reading the article, it’s an open question. This is not to say that he’ll lose control over his creation. That’s never going to happen—it will go out of business first. His shares command a 10-1 voting ratio over other classes, effectively enshrining him as king of Facebook for as long as he and the company live. He — and his heirs — would need to decide they wanted out to get out and sell almost all their holdings before losing control.
But controlling a company and being a great CEO who does the right things to insure success, as we all know, are not the same things. Founders can be terrible stewards, and often are when their companies scale past a certain point. The very instincts that have propelled Zuckerberg’s rise may now act as his Achilles heel. Character does not change, and in Zuckerberg’s case, that may not be a good thing.
Three points jumped off the page at me:
He’s Divorced From Reality
One of the most underrated aspects of great operational leadership is the ability to deal with what’s actually happening, aka reality or bad news.
Just as, if not more important, is the ability to create ways to see reality in the first place.
As one F25 CEO running a business at least as complex as Facebook told me recently, his biggest worry isn’t bad news — it’s that bad news won’t get to him fast enough.
Zuckerberg has never worked anywhere but the company he rules, has never worked for anyone else and has been a billionaire for much of his adult life. No wonder that in The New Yorker piece, he comes across as deeply disengaged from not only the larger society he inhabits and shapes, but also increasingly tin-eared about blowback of his decision-making on the company.
Even when he actively works to break the bubble — such as a national listening tour with regular folks— he just can’t seem to pop his self-generated force field. The New Yorker quotes a former Facebook executive who was involved in the tour telling a friend, “No one wanted to tell Mark, and no one did tell Mark, that this really looks just dumb.”
Which ties into point two:
He Keeps Learning The Wrong Lessons
Since the start of his career, Zuckerberg has won when he persists in following his vision and ignoring critics. “Over the years, Zuckerberg had come to see his ability to reject complaints as a virtue,” The New Yorker writes, quoting design ethicist Tristan Harris: “’When you’re running anything like Facebook, you get criticized all the time, and you just stop paying attention to criticism if a lot of it is not well founded. You learn to treat it as naïve and uninformed,’ he went on. ‘The problem is it also puts you out of touch with genuine criticism from people who actually understand the issues.’”
Under the banner of “Move fast and break things,” Zuckerberg has beta tested the largest ongoing behavioral psychology experiment in the history of man across countries, continents and cultures. And, as The New Yorker documents in painful detail, many things—and people—got broken along the way, all over the world.
Nonetheless, and incredibly, given the scale and scope of Zuckerberg’s achievement, the repercussions of this grow-at-any-cost land rush for the attention—and personal data—of humankind have been basically zilch.
For all the dips in stock price and bad press and grandstanding congressional hearings, Zuckerberg and Facebook have so far had zero real consequences for their missteps, and that, you might argue, has set Zuckerberg up badly to handle a true challenge down the road.
Which ties right into point three:
He’s A Man of Destiny
The best CEOs do not see themselves as transformational figures. They see themselves as servants of something larger than themselves and, thanks to their life experiences, have developed a grounded sense of self. They may have tempers, they may be quiet, they may be numbers people or people people, but they see themselves as stewards, not visionaries. As a result, they achieve extraordinary things over long periods of time.
They usually do not, as The New Yorker reports of Zuckerberg, have “an outsized sense of his own potential…‘a teleological frame of feeling almost chosen,’” in the words of one of his friends. “I think Mark has always seen himself as a man of history, someone who is destined to be great, and I mean that in the broadest sense of the term.”
More succinctly, it’s hard to picture Warren Buffett, even as a young man, carrying around a business card that said “I’m CEO…bitch” as Zuckerberg once did.
History shows that the character of leaders tends to take on the shape of their containers, or the lack of containers, and that character is only fully revealed in true crisis (See Washington, Lincoln, Grant, Eisenhower). You may need a sense of Augustinian destiny to create Facebook and shape the way 2.2 billion people on earth communicate and view the world (you almost have to have that), but it doesn’t mean you’re headed in the right direction. Napoleon was the most brilliant general of his time. Ask France how that turned out.