Erik P.M. Vermeulen


Who Will Build Our Future?

We shouldn’t try to tame visionary tech-leaders. We must learn from them.

Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash

Elon Musk is a provocative entrepreneur. He’s one of the most discussed people at conferences and events on technology, leadership, and business. And whenever I give a presentation, and want to “activate” the audience, just mentioning his name will always trigger multiple responses. Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg have a similar effect.

What is interesting is that while these visionary tech-leaders are known for their success in innovation and business development, the comments and discussion usually focuses on their shortcomings.

An often-heard complaint is that these charismatic leaders aren’t respecting generally-accepted business norms. They have become indistinguishable from “their” companies — Musk is Tesla, Bezos is Amazon, etc. — and the cult of personality that surrounds them often casts a dark shadow over the underlying business and its achievements.

During recent events I attended, Jeff Bezos was called out for Amazon’s poor working conditions. Mark Zuckerberg disrespects privacy by monetizing the personal data of Facebook users. Elon Musk’s accountability to Tesla’s board and investors is increasingly questioned.

The solution that is usually offered is simple and straightforward: regulators and a strong and independent board of directors need to “tame” these CEOs and make them respect the business norms and rules that have been introduced over recent decades. By doing so, we can have the best of both worlds: innovative leadership and more controlled behavior.

But the more I think about it — and the more I am engaged in this debate — the more I believe that such a solution is missing the point. We need to be learning lessons from these new tech leaders and not immediately trying to tame them.

Here is why.

Doing business is changing rapidly in the digital age. Brand loyalty is disappearing. Millennials don’t want to work for companies that are organized as hierarchies, tick the regulatory boxes, and operate according to stringent procedures and processes.

Also, more and more “internal issues” are discussed in the public domain. The recent letters of employees of tech companies raising concerns about the use of artificial intelligence by third-party contractors (mainly the government) are clear examples of this new normal.

Business is now done at the intersection of technology, new (and sometimes disruptive) products, and services, internal culture, and the environment (society and its stakeholders).

This means that we need leaders with different skillsets and experience. That’s not to say that the current visionary tech leaders are flawless. But instead of turning them into the process-oriented leaders of the 20th century, we should learn from them to make sure that companies have a better chance of remaining relevant.

Because, let’s be honest, the world isn’t waiting for more closed, process-oriented and impersonal leaders. We have enough of them already, and that isn’t what we need right now.

So, what can we learn about leadership from the visionary tech-leaders?

Business leaders of the 21st century must be more open and engaged

It is a widely-held view that business leaders and social media are not a good combination. Social media leads to impulsive thinking and actions. And once the “wrong” message is out it cannot easily be erased or forgotten. Moreover, social media feeds the ego of leaders and, over time, disconnects them from reality.

However, I believe that business leaders cannot disregard the way we communicate with each other in a digital world. Business leaders and their advisors have to be part of the public conversation around a company and its products and services. It is simply a matter of the openness, freedom and responsibility that defines our culture. We expect and demand a new degree of visibility from prominent public figures.

Elon Musk gets this. Of course, there will be missteps and blunders, and business leaders should be made accountable for the serious misuse of social media. But equally, the smart use of social media must be rewarded, and we all need to be more forgiving when mistakes are made.

Business leaders must be more human, personal and authentic

Leadership has always been “public” but whereas in the past it was about managing a carefully constructed (and often artificial) public image it is now about revealing a more personal and authentic self.

Recently, I watched Marques Brownlee “talking tech” with Elon Musk.

Watch this video. What strikes me is that here is a CEO speaking passionately and spontaneously — and not in a corporate style — about his company and its products. There is an authenticity — an almost childlike enthusiasm — for what he is doing that surprised and impressed me.

The factory tour was also fantastic: engaged, interested, knowledgeable. Many business leaders could and should learn from this.

Business leaders must replace “reporting” with storytelling and dialogue

Visionary tech leaders have found more personalized ways (besides social media) to communicate with stakeholders and start a dialogue with firm stakeholders, as well as the public more generally.

I’ve written before about Jeff Bezos’ letters to the shareholders and how they have become a must-read for other business leaders, founders of start-ups and anyone with an interest in doing business in a digital age.

Storytelling — and cultivating dialogue around these stories — has become one of the most powerful tools for business leaders today. Again, there is a view that such stories are “fantasies” — a PR exercise — but the new visibility that defines our culture means that such fantasies cannot be sustained, and they will be corrected.

Business leaders must go beyond standardized processes and embrace spontaneity and serendipity

Standardized processes and procedures imposed from the top down kill innovation. Not least because they create a de-motivating environment where individual freedom and spontaneity are reigned in.

Instead, business leaders must interact and continuously engage with other employees, and encourage greater freedom and responsibility. All organizations need to be very careful with the use of standardized procedures and processes, spreadsheets, dashboards, surveys, etc.

Of course, procedures can be powerful tools, but all too often such processes and tools take control of a business. Following processes and tools doesn’t guarantee success and usually it just kills creativity and enthusiasm.

Again, working “off the cuff” comes with risks. And combined with the greater visibility that exists there will be issues. But, equally, we shouldn’t be naïve about the past. Compared to the corporate scandals that plagued the closed, hierarchical organizations of an earlier phase of capitalism, the scandals of today’s digital economy seem likely to be revealed more quickly and the pressures to correct wrongdoing quickly are greater. Operating in the bright glare of social media seems likely to ensure this.

Business leaders must focus on the long-term

Current rules and regulations encourage business leaders to manage for the short-term. Quarterly results are considered to be more important than long-term innovation. Clearly, this is a mistake if our goal is to build sustainable and responsible companies that deliver transformative products and services.

Business leaders need to concentrate on longer-term goals and objectives.

Instead of more oversight and control of visionary leaders, other stakeholders in the company (investors, the board of directors, other senior executives) need to become “partner-challengers” that work together with the visionaries to channel that vision to deliver meaningful company growth.

Big corporations have played an essential role in economic and social development since, at least, the Industrial Revolution. However, with the exponential growth of digital technologies, their power and responsibilities are only increasing. We all can see how the largest tech companies are bigger and more powerful than many nation states.

Since governments and regulators struggle to handle the speed and scale of innovation, the obligation now falls on companies themselves to become more socially responsible and accountable.

In this context, it’s fair to say that current and future business leaders will be responsible for designing and building our future. This means that they should be held accountable by our society as a whole.

But “corporatizing” new leadership isn’t the answer. Trying to tame them (more monitoring, more control) will not work. We don’t need more control but more visibility.

Maybe that is why Elon Musk is so provocative to so many people. Leadership, governance and society more generally have changed and for many people the resulting uncertainties trigger a nervous response.

Instead, business leaders all need to become more visible, human and actively engaged in public discussion with all stakeholders. And all businesses must be transformed from “corporate hierarchies” to “flatter ecosystems/communities.” A more open and personal approach is necessary to communicate and have a meaningful dialogue with the vast array of stakeholders (employees, third-party developers, customers, investors, etc.).

This is the real lesson we need to take from the tech-leaders of today.

Thank you so much for reading! Please click (and hold) the 👏 below, or leave a comment.

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