Apologies! We are resending the Power Sheet because an earlier version didn’t contain today’s essay.
On Wednesday, in the wake of the deadly earthquake that struck Italy early that morning, two world leaders changed their plans so as to be there: Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Renzi canceled a planned trip to a conference in France; Zuckerberg announced he was flying to Rome and “looking forward to spending time with our Italian community after last night’s earthquake.” Renzi’s motivation is obvious. But what was Zuckerberg’s?
This isn’t the first time he has behaved like a statesman as much as a CEO, and his stance raises a large question: Is he doing so for some reason of his own, or is the role of the CEO changing? At Facebook’s big developers’ conference in April he gave a speech exalting the company’s mission of uniting the world and taking a thinly veiled swipe at Donald Trump: “I hear fearful voices calling for building walls and distancing people they label as others. For blocking free expression, for slowing immigration, reducing trade and in some cases around the world even cutting access to the Internet.” Time dubbed him “the world’s youngest elder statesman.”
Then in July, when a police officer shot Philando Castile, whose girlfriend livestreamed his death on Facebook, Zuckerberg posted a message of condolence and then went further: “The images we’ve seen this week are graphic and heartbreaking, and they shine a light on the fear that millions of members of our community live with every day.” Again, he went beyond the usual concerns of a CEO to comment on larger societal issues.
And now he’s in Italy, where Facebook has only modest operations. Why is he behaving like a government leader? We can’t read Zuckerberg’s mind, but his devotion to his company is so great that it seems unlikely he wants to run for office. There are, however, at least three good reasons for him to take this trip and more generally to be acting statesmanlike:
Tactically, showing concern for Europeans in a time of trouble is wise for Facebook. EU authorities are cracking down on American tech giants – Google for throwing its considerable weight around in various ways, and Apple just this week for allegedly underpaying taxes in Europe. Facebook’s privacy practices have already been challenged in a European court.
Society expects more from companies and CEOs than it has in the past. Making good products used to be enough. Now we expect companies to be good stewards of the environment, to look after the communities in which they operate, to provide good jobs, and more. CEOs are becoming more statesmanlike because we want them to be.
In the digital age, a few companies have achieved unprecedented global scale. And that means their CEOs are in some ways the peers of national leaders. It’s especially true of three CEOs: Apple’s Tim Cook, Alphabet’s Larry Page, and Facebook’s Zuckerberg. Their global influence is such that they are statesmen whether they like it or not. It behooves them to act like it.
The role of the CEO is changing. Zuckerberg knows it and is embracing the change.
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