Mark Zuckerberg is not always a colorless automaton


I now have low expectations when Mark Zuckerberg writes a manifesto, gives a speech, gives media interviews or answers questions from lawmakers. In these contexts, and especially on questions about how the world should or should work, the Facebook CEO can come across as overrehearsed, creepily superficial, cowardly political, evasive — or all of the above.

But in less scripted moments, or when the world isn’t watching, Zuckerberg is often lucid about where the internet is heading and articulates Facebook’s strategy. Fifteen years after Zuckerberg started Facebook in his dorm room, maybe you’ve heard this story before? – this scary, smart version of Zuckerberg remains the internet leader I want to hear from the most.

You do not believe me ?

Check out the transcript published by The Verge in October of two meetings between Zuckerberg and employees. Most of the attention has focused on his forceful push against Elizabeth Warren and others who want to break Facebook. But I was more interested in Zuckerberg’s clever explanation of how TikTok, Bytedance’s short-video app in China, is a distilled, video-centric version of Instagram’s “explore” section. He’s not wrong.

With these employees, Zuckerberg also spoke in a more nuanced way than he did in public about the novelty of a Chinese internet app gaining traction outside of his home country, how Facebook was trying to copy elements of TikTok and why TikTok was vulnerable. It was the opposite of the thousand-yard Zuckerberg the public sees in media interviews. This was Zuckerberg in his element as a competent and confident Internet diagnostician and tactician.

This Zuckerberg might not be the friendly Everyman stroking a calf, but I wish we saw more of him. On multiple occasions in Facebook’s quarterly earnings calls over the years, Zuckerberg has given insight moments that distill Facebook’s playbook or explain what trends such as online video, the Snapchat app and gaming mobile Pokemon Go show the future of technology.

You get an equally incisive, perhaps ruthless, version of Zuckerberg by reading internal Facebook emails that are the subject of occasional lawsuits or investigations. These glimpses are of a ruthless and savvy leader trying to undermine rivals and engineer partnerships that would make people more loyal to Facebook. You might read these selective disclosures and think that Zuckerberg is unethical and selling people who use Facebook. You may be right. But he also knows what works on the internet and how to position Facebook for success.

What if Facebook was the mystery bidder for wearable gadget company Fitbit, Zuckerberg refused to get involved in a conventional corporate acquisition process and essentially pestered Fitbit’s CEO to strike a deal on his terms . It was crazy, and the CEO of the unidentified suitor looked like a loose cannon, at least in the one-sided narrative of this Fitbit titles document. It’s also true that Zuckerberg’s personal involvement and unconventional personal persuasion helped Facebook acquire Instagram, which likely added more value to Facebook than anything the company has done in this decade.

Look, even savvy tactician Zuckerberg can be horribly wrong. He brushed off the effects of disinformation spread on Facebook around the 2016 U.S. presidential election. He recklessly plunged his business into live video, a feature fraught with risk and one that hasn’t taken over the internet like Zuckerberg did. had predicted.

Maybe Zuckerberg is like all of us. When he speaks out of the glare of shouting members of Congress and engages on topics he feels confident about, he’s like a different person. Today, however, more is expected. Leaders – especially those like Zuckerberg whose products are so widely used and influential – are expected to be able to think deeply about the world’s problems, not just devise smart product and business strategies.

The people who run big companies have to play many roles: diplomat, policy maker, motivational captain of their employees, and reassuring public face to customers. It’s nearly impossible, but that doesn’t mean we should lower the bar for these executives.

© 2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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