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2018 in review: Smoking out rogue leadership in tech

Written by Jordan Ratcliffe

2018 Tech CEOs

In: Being yourself. No, for real this time.

Out: Finding yourself saying “it’s legal, right?” during an interview.

Imagine this scenario. You’ve been working 120-hour weeks yet production in your factory is still behind schedule. Your Chief Accounting Officer has just given notice. Your Head of Human Resources tells you she isn’t coming back from leave. Everybody knows this and stock is down 10%. Your grand technology-driven vision is in danger. You’re a Tech CEO. You’ve got this. You need to act now. Luckily, you’re scheduled to appear on one of the world’s most popular podcasts. A chance to set the record straight and restore confidence? If you’re Elon Musk it’s a chance to talk about what it would be like to be a horse. Oh, and do this while pounding whiskey and smoking a joint.

musk smoking a joint tech ceo

Wow.

You probably didn’t see it live on Joe Rogan’s podcast but leaders in technology are increasingly going rogue; authority figures previously trusted to toe the line, speak chapter and verse, are going off-script. Microsoft’s ex, Steve Ballmer, started the trend when instead of just walking onto a stage he did…whatever this is. It’s true that captains in the technology industry acting unprofessionally is not new. Go back ten years and it was known that Steve Jobs had an icy streak, working restaurant wait-staff to breaking point and frustrating girlfriends alike. But, when speaking to a packed house, when it really mattered, he was ever the genial showman. What is new is that privacy-conscious Steve Jobs didn’t act like Snoop Dogg or a six-year-old at a jungle gym live on air in front of a vast audience.

How can this be addressed and organisations maintain their equity; financial and reputational?

The Tech CEO and the outdoor folding chair

A problem with leadership cuts to the core of an organisation and that is where you should look for a solution. If a leader and founder is not a naturally professional and corporate person, or does not feel capable of taking in these values, they should not found their business and public persona on these qualities.

Mark zuckerberg garden chair tech ceo

Worth $55bn, Mark Zuckerberg looks typically informal on a live Facebook video from his $20 Walmart garden chair while cooking on the Barbecue. He’s just like us!

What can Mark “I was human. I am human, still” Zuckerberg tell us about being your genuine and casual self in the world of technology?

Actually quite a lot. The man runs one of the most financially successful, and increasingly powerful, companies the world has ever seen. Every company wants their adverts on Facebook and governments hang on his every word. Yet, he notoriously wears the same ‘heather grey’ T-shirt every day which he pairs with baggy jeans and chunky trainers plus a hoodie if he’s feeling sophisticated. Far from commenting on his casualwear, it is actually of note when he does wear a suit. When he’s burning brisket on his patio barbecue, he shows the whole world.

Even Elon usually manages to throw on a blazer and smart shoes. Yet, this is not a problem for Mark. In wearing the same dressed-down clothes each day, he unambiguously sends the message to everybody, and has done from day one, that he is absolutely not your by-the-book, suited and booted, corporate drone. As such, nobody expects it of Mark and it does not distract from the value that he offers. It is a known quantity and does not come as a surprise. Perhaps this is how he gets away with refusing to appear in front of UK Government Ministers.

For both, the roguish nature is wearing thin. To quote Damian Collins, the chair of the Parliamentary committee investigating Facebook, it’s time for some ‘straight answers’ and some more straightforward behaviour.

Authenticity is a popular word but there is a very genuine point.

Everyone should strive to be the best version of themselves they can but there is a limit to this philosophy. You don’t need to publicly smoke weed for stakeholders to figure out that you are pretending to be something that you are not. However, Elon does demonstrate that all it takes is for you to not be in the mood to pretend on a particular day (not that this was the Tesla founder’s first time in the spotlight for the wrong reason).

Know yourself and you know your organisation. When letting someone into your fold, you have to be sure they share the same values as you. When leaving Tesla, outgoing Steve Morton stated ‘the level of public attention placed on the company…exceeded my expectations’. A Chief Accounting Officer that knew what he was in for and shared Elon’s passion for being himself on camera would surely have been far more inclined to stay.

In technology, the industry has come to expect a lightning-fast pace from us all. Tesla, like Uber et al, is no minnow but still relies on continued financial injections and the confidence of investors and consumers alike. It can be easy to lose focus on the long-term, do everything possible to maximise resources and performance as quickly as possible by projecting an image perceived to be what people want. Ultimately, being yourself and clearly communicating your values as early as possible in the operation of a business is the right step to take.

It is the right thing to do for the health of leadership, it takes effort to pretend to be someone you’re not and that is energy that could be ploughed back into the business. For equity it is also the right decision as it prevents reputational or financial value from slipping when (yes, it’s a when, not if) surprised observers interpret a change in the norm as a reason for concern.

Reading is a good first step but taking action is harder.