Wisdom Zuckerberg doesn't yet have
Q: The ongoing privacy controversy at Facebook raises the familiar dilemma of what to do when fast-growing startups threaten to outgrow the management abilities of creative young founders. The Google guys got kudos for bringing in industry veteran Eric Schmidt as CEO, but things didn't work out as well when Pepsi's John Sculley took the reins from a young Steve Jobs at Apple. What's the leadership wisdom here?
Leadership wisdom is something that accrues with age and experience. And so it is no wonder that Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook is struggling with large issues. He's still in his twenties.
Wisdom for leaders is not simply a matter of chronology. You have to be paying attention. Warren Bennis, author and former university president, once said that most successful leaders he knows had experienced some moment of great adversity from which they learned. For Bennis, as he wrote in the Harvard Business Review in 2002, a significant personal test of his leadership occurred as a young second lieutenant during the Battle of the Bulge in the Second World War. As a replacement officer he learned to delegate to the sergeant.
Learning from adversity is critical to leadership. Being tested, however, is not an indication of learning. We have seen executives bounce from one organization to another, crisis to crisis, acting the same ways as before and with the same results. Failure. Such executives are the types who are ready to blame others for their mistakes rather than assume responsibility for their own actions. It seems they have learned nothing.
Self awareness is essential to wisdom. Knowing what you do well is one thing, but knowing what you cannot do is sometimes more important. Anne Mulcahy, former CEO of Xerox, learned this the hard way. When she became CEO of Xerox, she knew little about finance. This was a problem since the financial community was urging her to break up the company, something Mulcahy was reluctant to do because as a Xerox lifer she believed the company's culture and people if properly led would survive. In order to make her case she had herself tutored in finance but also leveraged her communication skills to rally the company toward a renewed sense of purpose. The company did downsize but it was not sold piecemeal and it eventually it survived, as Mulcahy thought it would.
There is another issue facing Zuckerberg at Facebook. No doubt he is a talented entrepreneur, but the skills need to build a business are the not the same as those needed to run it. Sergei Brin and Larry Page learned this early on and brought on a skilled manager, Eric Schmidt. One entrepreneur I know possesses strong visionary abilities but prefers to surround himself with executives with strong operational skills. It's a combination that has helped his company prosper.
Good leaders know their strengths and play to them, but they also know their weaknesses. They surround themselves with capable executives who have the skills they lack. This allows the leader to focus on what he or she does best and in the process lead more capably.
Youth does not preclude effective leadership. Our military is led from the front by a very capable core of junior officers. These officers are supported by equally youthful noncommissioned officers. Both may lack the wisdom of years but they make up for it with experience as well as a focus on mission. These men and women have learned to lead through their people, not over them, and in doing so they provide a strong leadership example for the rest of us. We also see examples of selfless leadership in youth in the Peace Corps and City Year programs.
"Life," wrote Soren Kierkegaard. "can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward." Same holds for leadership. Lead going forward but pay attention to where you have been.
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