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Are famous leaders the role models you need?

Famous leaders have much to offer us, but their answers might not be our answers. The leadership journey is unique to each of us.

5 min read


Are famous leaders the role models you need?

SmartBrief illustration; Zuckerberg photo by Anthony Quintano/Flickr

There was a Twitter thread recently from an early, longtime Facebook executive, Dan Rose. You might have missed it. That’s OK — scrolling Twitter is rarely the best use of our time.

In these tweets, Rose argued for the greatness of Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s leadership, especially in the early years when he stood in opposition to board members and fellow executives who wanted Facebook to sell to Yahoo. Rose also tells of how Zuckerberg replaced those people over time, and how he didn’t tolerate undermining — including a meeting Rose organized behind Zuck’s back.

This thread has gotten a lot of attention — the usual Twitter mix of effusive praise and derisive commentary. In particular, I learned of this thread from people critical of this tweet, as if it were some miracle to not yell or throw things (then again, maybe that is special in some companies!).

You don’t have to be mean to be a fighter. Some CEOs struggle with this (famously Steve Jobs), but Mark pulled it off gracefully. He didn’t yell at people, never threw furniture or lost his temper. He was just ruthlessly decisive, always willing to make the hard call.

Why am I mentioning these tweets? Because they cut to the heart of what I’ve tried to convey for almost a decade at SmartBrief on Leadership. Namely, that being a leader is difficult but also a great gift; that leadership is an ongoing process of many small and big decisions; and that while you should always seek new information, inspiration and ideas, you shouldn’t idealize or idolize any person or method.

And the default outside my little corner of the world is often the opposite: “What did the biggest names do and say? Be like them.”

Other times, it’s some form of circular reasoning that’s essentially, “This person succeeded, so their ideas and strategies must be great, because they led to success.”

Now, I’m happy Rose shared these insights. These are personal, firsthand recollections, and we need that window into how powerful people think, act and treat people. Rose himself has great reason to take Zuckerberg’s example seriously and even emulate it, because he lived much of it up close. Rose knows the backstories and the context beyond the tweets. Most of us don’t.

How Mark Zuckerberg leads isn’t particularly relevant for most people, and that’s the other point — “most.” Many tech executives and founders will find parallels, wisdom or cautionary tales in examining Zuckerberg’s decisions, his approach to life and his business acumen. Zuckerberg’s early shepherding of Facebook — for example, turning down a billion-dollar offer from Yahoo — has relevance for founders, although the takeaway is more complicated than “turn down billion-dollar exits.”

And some leaders might read Rose’s tweets about how Zuck handled internal dissension, or how he reacted to “The Social Network,” or how he recovered from what he considered a public speaking gaffe, and see something similar in their day-to-day lives. That’s great. 

But these are anecdotes that are most useful when incorporated into the vast array of knowledge and experience that you bring to your situation, to your teams, to your company or to your work. Such stories are not a hard-and-fast guide, and the anecdotes aren’t automatically more useful because Zuck is one of the most powerful people in the world.

What do everyday leaders need?

I regularly get emails from readers about the SmartBrief on Leadership newsletter, and yes, some of them are executives or business owners, or consultants and coaches. But I also hear from librarians, sheriffs, teachers, engineers and retirees. They don’t have the power, budget or scope of a CEO, and many are asked to manage people on top of 40 hours of individual responsibilities.

These readers need practical advice to handle whatever comes up in their day and week: difficult conversations, poorly run meetings, performance check-ins, closing a deal, building better habits or persuading their boss to sign off on something. While these readers aren’t powerless, they must be able to be reactive as well as proactive, depending on the situation.

Sometimes that advice comes from a pithy Teddy Roosevelt or Maya Angelou quote, sure, and sometimes it comes from a research paper. But we also publish a lot of blog-style pieces that combine data, practical how-tos and storytelling, because everyone is in a different place in their story. (And sometimes the answers come from YouTube or a podcast, although SmartBrief on Leadership links to those less frequently.)

All of these approaches matter, because everyone’s leadership journey is unique.

For a different example, the US just celebrated Father’s Day. How many people say that their father (or mother, for that matter) is their biggest influence, or someone they most admire? Those are powerful stories, and it makes 100% sense that someone’s parents would fundamentally affect their development. But would you equally admire someone’s father whom you’ve not met and know nothing about? No, and that’s OK, too. Famous leaders are not quite as unknowable as strangers, but we should keep this in mind.

So if you read Dan Rose’s tweets and thought, this is amazing, that’s great. If you read them and thought, Zuckerberg’s awful, that’s fine — you know who not to emulate. But don’t feel there’s only one answer for you. 

Leadership comes in many forms, and every day is a new chance to answer the call. Keep trying, keep learning and keep your eyes and ears open.


James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and blog content. Contact him at @James_daSilva or by email.

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