Skip to main content
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

How Start-ups are Challenged as They Mature

Compass Pointing to Leadership

Compass Pointing to Leadership

Ann Skeet

Ann Skeet is the senior director of Leadership Ethics at the Markkula Center of Applied Ethics. Views are her own.

Following Mark Zuckerberg’s speech at Georgetown, a few intentionally placed, false political ads have highlighted the challenges faced by social media platforms. After the Arab Spring, there was a buoyant sense that social media could be a useful tool in spreading democratic ideals. Since then, however, there’ve been just as many examples of social media used as a weapon against democracy. There are two threads in this story that are not going to go away anytime soon—the challenges platforms face in anticipating how they are used and the journey of founders in start-ups.

Platforms have positioned themselves as matchmakers in the market place, but even a good matchmaker takes responsibility for her matches, something many platforms have been reluctant to do. Complaints have dogged companies like Uber, Lyft, Amazon, and myriad streaming companies for collecting information without users’ knowledge, and others, like AirBnB, have seen bad actors use their platforms in ways they likely did not anticipate and have been accused of playing fast and loose with the law. The shooting at a recent party publicized as an AirBnB Halloween party makes the point all too tragically. These companies tell us that they simply did not imagine all the ways people would use social media for harm.

Facebook gets outsized attention for this reality because it appears to want to have its cake and eat it too. It claims to be a platform company that honors the individual’s right to free speech and says it cannot possibly police all the content on its site. It also wants to be a legitimate news source, which have traditionally accepted responsibility for what they publish or broadcast. The morning after Zuckerberg testified before Congress about fake ads, Facebook announced its next iteration of a news feed on its platform. Facebook must decide if it wants to be a publisher or a platform. Even the distracted public is starting to understand why the company can’t have it both ways.

The person who seems to be struggling with this reality the most is Facebook’s CEO. Mark Zuckerberg is coming to grips with one of the fundamental realities faced by those in leadership positions. Good intentions are not enough to carry the day when bad things happen on your watch.

Zuckerberg has proven to be a caring, thoughtful person. His desire to do good is one he expresses regularly and backs up with action, as evidenced by the generous philanthropy he and his wife, Priscilla Chan, engage in. He has stated repeatedly that he accepts responsibility for what happens in his company. And clearly he is thinking quite a bit about the dilemma now facing it—how to behave as a business to be a force for good.

Unfortunately, Zuckerberg is experiencing a challenge many people who step into leadership roles at a relatively young age experience. Their moral judgment isn’t as well developed as their desire to do good. And, you need both to lead well.

There are ways to work around this. A seasoned board chair could be a great partner for an early career executive, helping him think through his decisions with the benefit of more experience and the more developed conscience that comes with it. But, Mark Zuckerberg is also the board chair.

The rest of the board could provide sound wisdom and a firmer governance hand if needed. But, Mark Zuckerberg owns enough of the company to effectively render his board a rubber stamp.

Hiring a more seasoned executive partner, as Zuckerberg did when he brought Sheryl Sandberg on board, is another way to round out the company’s decision-making. But, we’re not hearing much from Sandberg lately.

And that is exactly the rub. Zuckerberg seems to be stuck pretty squarely in the middle of moral development as defined by Kohlberg ’s model of moral development. It’s the place one gets to after moving on from trying to avoid getting in trouble or getting what one wants, to trying to make others happy, or meet the norms of groups and follow the rules. A later model, proposed by Carol Gilligan, captures her belief that the essence of morality differs for men and women. She would peg someone in the middle of her moral development if she chose to put someone else’s needs before her own.

A person with a more fully formed conscience starts to move past these traditional mid-points, if their development progresses. Some people never get there. Most of us keep working at some version of building moral muscle our entire lives. Whether you follow the path of moral judgement laid out by Kohlberg or Gilligan, in these incredibly complex and polarizing times, we need people in leadership positions with formed consciences. That looks like leaders who understand there are minority positions that should be respected and who appreciate a sense of democracy and the relativity of rules. Using Gilligan’s model, the highest stage of moral development is one of nonviolence. A moral equivalence is established between oneself and others and the woman at this point realizes she must balance care for herself with care for others. Ultimately, we each much choose what we believe is right and good and pursue those universal principles, and I believe, to try and change society for the better.

Different decisions would have likely been made if the traditional checks and balances in corporate governance had been followed in the formation of Facebook, and Google, and Snap, and others putting youthful people in positions of unchecked power and without partners who can effectively think together with them. That’s not Mark Zuckerberg’s fault.

That’s on the scores of adults around him and others like him as these companies were formed—the investors, who typically are the early board members and allowed companies like Facebook to be shaped the way they were in the interests of rapid and outsized returns on initial investments. Uber, WeWork, and maybe even Facebook, show us the folly of this short-term thinking.

One of the other realities more experienced leaders come to understand is that they are not the person for every season. The best leaders, when history looks back on them, are often those that accept when their turn in the role should end. Hopefully they do it before they erode their personal legacy, their company’s value, and the trust others have placed in them. It’s not an easy thing to do, which is why elected offices have term limits and corporate offices have boards. And occasionally, someone with neither—Pope Benedict comes to mind—decides it for himself.

Nov 26, 2019