Unethical Leaders Falling Like Dominoes

Published in Online Spin, September 27th, 2019

It started with Elizabeth Holmes: the straight-out-of-central-casting founder of Theranos whose vision to disrupt bloodwork was, in fact, too good to be true.

Next came the Fyre Festival disaster, whose mastermind Billy McFarland is currently incarcerated at FCI Otisville.

Next came the dethroning of Travis Kalanick, whose relentless insistence on misogyny, immorality and outright illegality made Uber a “horrifying” place to work. (Don’t worry about Travis—his estimated net worth is still a healthy $3.5 billion.)

This week, Kevin Burns, CEO of vaping juggernaut Juul, was shown the door (turns out having nine deaths tied to your product isn’t good for business), along with WeWork’s Adam Neumann, who trademarked the term “We” and then sold it to his own company for almost $6 million.

As the Morning Brew newsletter pointed out, “August CEO turnover in the U.S. reached an all-time monthly high at 159 chief executive changes.”

To be clear, not all of those were for ethical lapses. The Brew put forward a potential hypothesis: “Execs are facing more accountability as boards brace for a possible economic downturn.”

But I’d like to focus on the systematic contempt for ethics being shown by so many in their quest to build the next “unicorn,” the next billion-dollar company.

At first, I thought this behavior was a result of setting the wrong goal.

Back in April, I wrote about how YouTube’s big goal backfired: “In 2012, a company called YouTube set themselves a BHAG: to reach a billion hours of video viewing per day… Sadly, what [it] learned is that the way to win that particular race is by making people angry.”

If your ambition is to reach a billion hours of video viewing per day, you’re going to ignore the fact that some of those videos are showing unethical, immoral or illegal content. If your ambition is to build a billion-dollar company, or completely disrupt the taxi industry, you’re more likely to ignore a few rules along the way.

What I’ve realized, though, is that this appalling behavior is not about setting the wrong goal. It’s about setting the goal in a vacuum.

Without an ethical foundation, every goal is the wrong goal.

Unfortunately, our response to these businesses, founders and executives is to lionize them right up until their downfall. Like Charlie Brown with Lucy’s football, we fall for it over and over again: What amazing innovators! What visionary geniuses! They don’t play by the rules, and that’s what makes them legendary!

Have we not learned? Rather than adulation, history suggests that our standard response to unfettered ambition should be What a big goal! I wonder what ethical framework is underpinning their decision-making?

I know. It’s not as sexy. Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. Feels a bit cynical, a bit Eeyore.

Does it matter? The evidence is clear: We need to be a bit more cynical when it comes to the cowboys looking to move fast, break things, and disrupt the world.

The next time you hear about a brash founder of a juggernaut start-up devouring an entire industry, ask yourself: What is this person willing to tolerate in the pursuit of their naked ambition? Is their behavior worthy of admiration, worthy of derision, or worthy of prison?

For too long, we’ve treated unethical leaders like rock stars simply because they had convinced VCs to give their companies billion-dollar valuations. It’s time we set our standards a bit higher.

Kaila Colbin