Should Mark Zuckerberg step down as CEO and/or chair of Facebook, as some criticsand even shareholders have suggested? It’s easy to fall into one of two extreme camps: either “The behavior is so bad that it is time for him to go,” or “This is just an entrepreneur showing the level of singlemindedness essential to entrepreneurial success: Leave him alone.”
I’d argue that the situation is a bit more nuanced. For me, the central question is whether Zuckerberg can shift his thinking enough to begin a truly new era as CEO, or whether he can only begin a new era if he leaves Facebook. What would such a shift look like? It would mean that focusing on the maximum monetization potential of every single one of his two billion plus users is not the same as actually treating them — or the platform he built — with the respect they deserve. It would also mean recognizing that exterminating competitors such as Snapchat is not in the interests of humanity. And that, even if he doesn’t want to believe Facebook is a media company, continuing to argue that it is just a neutral technology platform is abdicating an important social responsibility. In effect, he would have to shift his thinking to become both statesman and CEO.
Is such a shift possible?
American business history is laced with moguls who did very bad things to build their businesses – from Andrew Carnegie to John D. Rockefeller to Bill Gates. While building their businesses, each behaved in ways that make “hustlin’,” and “toe-stepping” ex-Uber CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick look like a choir boy. But each one also went on to become one of America’s greatest philanthropists – all with philanthropic legacies beyond reproach.
Arguably, for Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Gates, the mindset as CEO was to win at all costs, regardless of how close they sailed to the legal wind. Don’t outcompete competitors; extinguish them. Customer welfare be damned; get as close to attaining an unassailable monopoly position as possible. Thereafter, almost inexplicably, they turned their attention toward, respectively, making knowledge a public good, transforming education and science, and curing the world’s worst diseases – among numerous other noble things.
It is actually kind of weird. They became statesmen, concerned about the broader public good, but with arguably the same desire for massive impact that they had brought to their entrepreneurial ventures.
Given this consistent pattern of business titans transitioning from the dark side to the light side when they step out of aggressive business-building mode, one might ask: is it simply uniformly good for humanity for them to exit their businesses when they reach a certain size? It’s worth acknowledging that there is a real downside, as was learned by the Microsoft shareholders of record the day Gates handed the reins to Steve Ballmer. During the 14 years of Ballmer’s tenure as CEO, Microsoft’s stock price dropped 35%. Ballmer apologists would argue that is an unfair statistic because he happened to take over the company mere weeks after Microsoft peaked at its then all-time high of $59.56 and literally at the inception of the dot com implosion for which he was in no way responsible. But even if we cut Ballmer some slack and start his record in September 2002 when both the NASDAQ and MSFT bottomed out, in his subsequent 12 years in charge, the NASDAQ grew 284% to Microsoft’s 66% — a total bust that got him ejected from his job under shareholder pressure. Founders do bring something real and important to their companies, and them stepping aside often comes at a steep cost.
Returning to our question: Can Zuckerberg reorient his approach to leadership, staying on as CEO and chair and prioritizing Facebook’s role in the world alongside its financial interests?
I don’t know the man. But it is not impossible to imagine. On the other side of the country, in Cary, North Carolina, there is another massively successful software company run by a founder-CEO who hasn’t waited until retirement to be a statesman for humanity. That is the SAS Institute, still run by co-founder James Goodnight. Too much terrific stuff has been written about Goodnight to regurgitate here, but it is fair to say that SAS is run as much for humanity as for its shareholders. It can be done, and it can be done in tech.
But can Mark Zuckerberg do it at Facebook? Can he continue to lead Facebook as a competitive company, but shift from the goal of exterminating competition, abusing his user-base, and turning a blind eye to exploitation of his platform by really bad actors? Or will that transition have to happen under the leadership of a successor? Maybe a call to James Goodnight would be help him explore what it takes to be an entrepreneur-statesman in parallel rather than one after the other.
Roger L. Martin is the director of the Martin Prosperity Institute and a former dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. He is a coauthor of Creating Great Choices: A Leader’s Guide to Integrative Thinking(Harvard Business Review Press, 2017).