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Paul Schmitz
Public Service Leader

Paul Schmitz

Paul Schmitz is CEO of Public Allies, which, through AmeriCorps and other programs, identifies and prepares young community and non-profit leaders.

Mark Zuckerberg needs to own it (and "it" is not what you think)

Q: Facebook's young founder Mark Zuckerberg avoids press interviews, offers inscrutable answers at public forums and jealously guards his privacy--so much so that he is now the subject of an unflattering movie. Does Zuckerberg have to develop a better "outside game" to be an effective leader of his fast-growing company?

Last weekend, before going out to see "The Social Network," I read some blogs posts about the movie. Several challenged the veracity of the script in terms of Facebook history. Others questioned the portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg (explaining, for example, that he does actually smile and have a sense of humor - the movie shows him always stone-faced and cold). And others criticized Aaron Sorkin (the writer) and David Fincher (the director) for not really understanding what is unique or transformational about Facebook. After leaving the theater, I found all of these criticisms credible notwithstanding the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed the film.

I would feel pretty bad if I were Mark Zuckerberg. But then, if I were Mark Zuckerberg, I would look at my life, my business, and my net worth, and I would probably shrug it off (and maybe drop $100 million on the Newark Public Schools). But should he shrug it off, especially as the leader of a company which thrives off networks that purport to be based on openness, authenticity, and transparency?

I think Mark missed an opportunity before the film came out. He could have written a self-deprecating essay or given a magazine cover story interview that recognized the awkwardness of his youth, the inevitable mistakes of an early-stage entrepreneur, and the lessons he's learned as he's taken a great idea to scale. I'm not saying cry on Oprah, but blend what Jim Collins writes about in Good to Great: personal humility and professional boldness. He would not lose anything by owning up to his past challenges - they aren't secrets, as books and the film point out. His flaws could humanize him as the leader of a network that connects so many of us, and could invite us to pull for him rather than disparage him.

As for the legal issues, they're done and settled. Owning the challenges of going from 20-year-old programming student to Fortune 500 CEO in a few short years does not validate others' critiques or undermine his leadership. Saying nothing undermines his leadership or validates his critics.

When I look at Zuckerberg's story, I reflect on my own. When I was 20 (the age Mark Zuckerberg was when he founded Facebook), I had my life on track for the first time after struggles with depression and addiction. I was doing well at college, telemarketing for an insurance agency, and gardening during the summers. When I founded Public Allies Milwaukee, I was 24 and had never written a grant proposal, managed staff, built a program, read a financial statement, developed a board or learned any of the other skills I needed. Most of my colleagues across the country similarly struggled, led by vision and passion more than skills or experience. We had a steep learning curve and made many mistakes along the way.

Five years ago (around the time Facebook was launching), I created a presentation titled "The Worst Practice of Social Entrepreneurship." It highlighted some of the big mistakes that Public Allies and I made during our first decade. I presented it publicly several times, watched my presentation go viral among nonprofit colleagues, and wrote an article about it for the Stanford Social Innovation Review. I learned a few lessons:

(1) Nothing in there was secret, especially my own failures. I was hesitant and scared the first time I shared it with my employees, and then realized that I was just naming elephants in the room. Nothing I shared was new to the people who knew me. It was a very freeing experience.

(2) Every time I presented it, there was a line of people who came to me afterward telling me about their own mistakes and challenges. Once I let my cat out of the bag, others felt more comfortable letting theirs out.

(3) It demonstrated to me that openness, authenticity, and transparency are powerful traits for leaders. Sharing our own challenges builds stronger relationships and opens the door for more. If I am clear about my own challenges, it also makes it easier to call out others on theirs when appropriate.

These lessons are what has encouraged me to use Facebook as a tool to continue being open, authentic, and transparent about my work and my life with a large network of friends and "friends." As a leader, it has helped humanize me to employees, colleagues, partners, and constituents. It has helped me gain new perspectives on various current issues, introduced me to new causes, and led to my attendance at more events and activities in my community. I have also found out about things I have in common with people I would not have known, which has deepened relationships.

I disagree with Malcolm Gladwell's simplistic critique of Facebook and social networks in The New Yorker as only developing "weak ties" that are not good for activism. He just might not have the right friends. Facebook can both broaden and deepen relationships, and it can be a tool for mobilizing others if you use it well.

And that is the irony of Mark Zuckerberg's story. He created a platform to build stronger relationships and has personally withheld. I believe that his leadership would be stronger if he would open up about his entrepreneurial experience, owning his successes and mistakes.He could inspire other young entrepreneurs, and to manifest the values of his platform as its leader.

By Paul Schmitz

 |  October 8, 2010; 6:26 PM ET
Category:  CEOs , Leadership personalities Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Zuckerberg's on his way | Next: Against big government? It's no surprise he's popular


Please report offensive comments below.

I agree with you that strong leaders are able to admit their mistakes and flaws honestly, and to learn from them openly. While Zuckerberg's donation to the Newark schools and guest appearance on The Simpsons may have softened his cold reputation, he could have just addressed how he was portrayed in The Social Network. His silence makes me think that the movie is more accurate than not.

Posted by: mjdicker | October 9, 2010 4:00 PM
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Posted by: maxjulien09 | October 9, 2010 2:53 AM
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