Mark Zuckerberg: The Inventor As Arsonist

Updated on

With Facebook, Inc. (NASDAQ:FB)’s firestorm of social and legal problems, perhaps CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s motto “move fast and break things” is akin to an arsonist setting fires his colleagues (and the world) have to extinguish. Zuckerberg and 30.6% of those we’ve surveyed identify as the Inventor personality. This personality’s superpower can likewise be his (or your) demise. For Zuckerberg (and others), this unchecked genius is getting its due.

Get The Full Henry Singleton Series in PDF

Get the entire 4-part series on Henry Singleton in PDF. Save it to your desktop, read it on your tablet, or email to your colleagues

Q3 2021 hedge fund letters, conferences and more

 A Firestorm Of Problems

Circumstances around Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg are a firestorm of problems making big news. His net worth just took a nosedive. A looming rebrand could make or break an already wobbly company. He’s been named a defendant for the Cambridge Analytica scandal (addressed in the Emmy-nominated Netflix documentary, The Great Hack—the dark side of social media). The recent whistleblower accusations claim he’s personally responsible for harming people and dividing the nation.

We could quickly pile on; however, this article is about Zuckerberg as an Inventor Personality and offers a cautionary tale about the dark side of this personality. Inventors are found where visionary thinkers offer big ideas and all kinds of possibilities for achieving them. There are many examples of classic CEO Inventor Personalities: Steve Jobs, Elson Musk, Satya Nadella, Meg Whitman, Sundar Pichai, Indra Nooyi, to name only a few.

Mark Zuckerberg and 30.6% of those we surveyed can be identified as the Inventor Personality. Zuckerberg is famously gifted in imagining and leading the charge for a future that hasn’t yet been realized. True to form, The Social Network movie portrayed him as a forward-thinking genius (almost savant) who could see and imagine what others could not, pressing for a future others couldn’t yet visualize. Seemingly every roadblock was swatted away like an opportunity in disguise. While Zuckerberg expressed his dissatisfaction with the film’s factual portrayal, it characterized the opportunity and the cost of the Inventor Personality well.

Personality and Transactional Behavior™ demonstrates that each personality is both highly valued AND high-cost. For example, an Inventor Personality is excellent at ideation, but this ability is costly and disruptive once the tactics for fulfillment have been deployed. For the mainstream, we correlate high-value with superpower and high-cost with kryptonite, a fictitious alien mineral that has the property of depriving Superman of his powers. This example leads to our cautionary tale of Mark Zuckerberg and possibly you, the Inventor; your superpower can likewise be your demise.

What is Mark Zuckerberg’s Kryptonite?

Caution 1. The Vision At Any Cost

Now one of the world’s wealthiest people, Zuckerberg’s wealth should not be misidentified as satisfaction, a balanced life, or ethical or conscious capitalism. On the contrary. Instead, biographies of the uber-wealthy often show the toll on relationships, career, legacy, ethics, and other conditions of life.

These tolls have ripples, which lead us to additional cautions and breakdowns. Is the cost ultimately worth it?

Caution 2. A Big Ego

Steve Jobs was famously quoted as saying:

Some people say, “Give the customers what they want.” But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!'” People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.

Unfortunately, the quote (and much of Steve Jobs’ behavior) gave other inventor personalities carte blanche to behave badly, dismiss the customer, or eliminate those who don’t understand them. Zuckerberg tends to disregard public opinion by claiming that others misunderstand his intent. In his October 5th post to Facebook, he wrote:

“…now that today’s testimony is over, I wanted to reflect on the public debate we’re in. I’m sure many of you have found the recent coverage hard to read because it just doesn’t reflect the company we know. We care deeply about issues like safety, well-being, and mental health,” Zuckerberg wrote. “At the most basic level, I think most of us just don’t recognize the false picture of the company that is being painted.”

Zuckerberg and many inventors don’t seem to understand that this identity is not what he says it is; it’s what the public says it is. This is the precise nature of market identity. Many such inventors will claim to be misunderstood. Rarely do they make it their problem to be understood. A big ego doesn’t want to be bothered; that activity will cost them time on the vision (see Caution 1).

Caution 3. Narcissism (I And Only I Alone)

In startups, the Inventor is often a burgeoning visionary who works alone (kryptonite alert). In larger enterprises, the Inventor is surrounded by people putting out the fires produced by unbridled and unlimited ideating. In the Leonning and Rucker book, I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year, the title and phrase underscores the narcissism run amok. This thinking includes phrases like, “I alone can fix this, or “if it’s to be, it’s up to me,” and self-reliance is the only road to independence.”

Zuckerberg isn’t accused of outright narcissism; instead, he’s known for thinking he knows better than you do. His motto, “move fast and break things,” became the title of a book penned by Jonathan Taplin titled Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy. The description:

Move Fast and Break Things is the riveting account of a small group of libertarian entrepreneurs who in the 1990s began to hijack the original decentralized vision of the Internet, in the process creating three monopoly firms — Facebook, Amazon, and Google — that now determine the future of the music, film, television, publishing and news industries.

“Jonathan Taplin offers a succinct and powerful history of how online life began to be shaped around the values of the men who founded these companies, including Peter Thiel and Larry Page: overlooking piracy of books, music, and film while hiding behind opaque business practices and subordinating the privacy of individual users in order to create the surveillance-marketing monoculture in which we now live.”

Caution 4. Naïve To Relationships (And Doesn’t Think So)

I said, “Many such inventors will claim being misunderstood; rarely do they make it their problem to be fully understood. A big ego doesn’t want to be bothered.” Most inventors, Zuckerberg included, seek to make the world a better place. The mission of Facebook is:

to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.

While he does care deeply about the human condition, he may not trouble himself to care about people. While this may sound contradictory, it is.

Zuckerberg does a great job of caring about the forest but not the trees. And there are substantial consequences for ignoring this difference.

Caution 5. Big Visions Can Be Short-sighted (New Ideas Create New Problems)

Was Henry Ford an industrial genius or a significant contributor to global warming? Time will tell.

While even Zuckerberg’s intellect can’t foretell the future, it matters that he considers both the good and the harm his ideas create.

For example, in a Freakanomics interview with Influence superhero, Robert Cialdini, Steven Dubner asks:

DUBNER: I’m curious whether this edition is, to some degree, a mea culpa for having given unscrupulous users a bible to become even more unscrupulous.

CIALDINI: I wouldn’t use “mea culpa.” All information can be used for good or ill, but if I were to limit myself only to the information that couldn’t be used properly, there would be no information.

DUBNER: One of the creators of the atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, was apparently tortured for most of his life about that ethical conundrum of needing to help invent this instrument of war to end World War II, while creating a new instrument of war that we’re obviously still dealing with. My sense is that’s not a good parallel to you, correct?

CIALDINI: It’s a different level of unfortunate circumstances.

DUBNER: We shouldn’t downgrade the level of influence that your book has had. I could imagine many despots and dictators have read it.

CIALDINI: So what I try to do is emphasize the ethical uses to make it difficult for people to try to use it in untoward ways.

Similarly, Facebook’s founder is dealing with the sinister side of something created for good. The Whistleblower claims that Facebook is misleading the public on progress against hate speech, violence, misinformation, and that he knew of these things but allowed them anyway. Should he be excused of guilt? We’ll let the court of law and public opinion decide.

Caution 6. Ambitious Arsonist

We use the description ambitious arsonist when we talk about the Inventor Personality. Why? Because their stream of new ideas creates “fires” that the team has to extinguish. This was well-documented in the Bob Woodward book Fear: Trump in the White House, citing the practice of Trump’s staff removing documents from his desk to prevent him from signing them.

To “move fast and break things” hasn’t just become Zuckerberg’s motto, but has become the motto of Silicon Valley.

If you’re a true Inventor Personality, you’re thinking, yes, but so what? In the end, I’ll be rich, influential, have started something that mattered, and built a global enterprise that leaves a legacy to be studied for decades.

While true, you may also find yourself in a wildfire built of your naïvete. The firestorm created by Mark Zuckerberg is exceedingly high cost and will take time to extinguish.

It is possible to be highly influential, wealthy, and ethical. The Fortune Magazine article, The World’s 10 Top CEOs (They Lead in a Totally Unique Way), A leadership philosophy that’s been around for centuries is practiced by only a few wildly successful global leaders, paints a picture of those that:

“have grasped the immense power that is generated from putting people (employees) ahead of profits through shared values like authenticity, entrepreneurship, freedom and ownership, community, and collaboration.”

The article and the 10 CEOs within can be studied to understand what ethical leadership might look like—and how successful and satisfying it can be.

Your Superpower Can Likewise Be Your Demise

All is not lost. Cautionary tales are meant to warn the listener of danger. Zuckerberg’s kryptonite (and yours) can be managed. Once you know it is both highly valued and high cost, you can amp the value and mitigate the cost—as long as you’re self-aware enough to let it go unchecked.

For Zuckerberg (and others), this unchecked genius is getting its due.

About The Author

John D. Patterson is the Co-founder & CEO of Influence Ecology and the senior Faculty Manager of Influential U. Since 1987, he has led programs and conferences teaching tens of thousands globally. His history includes corporate curriculum design focusing on business ecosystems, leadership, and high-performance training and development. His articles and appearances address commerce, culture, and climate. LinkedIn