I believe Mark Zuckerberg.
I believe him when he says he’s not running for office. I believe that he’s interested in figuring out what his users—the vast majority of whom don’t live in Silicon Valley—are thinking. I believe above all else that Zuckerberg’s listening tour across American is simultaneously an honest effort to improve his understanding and a Machiavellian effort to put the kibosh on criticism of Facebook before it gets worse.
Reading Mike Isaac’s nicely woven account of Zuckerberg’s travels, I couldn’t help but thinking about Zuckerberg’s extraordinary capacity for growth. I first met him in 2005, when he and Facebook were pups. He was completely without artifice then, full of confidence as well as a heavy dollop of insouciance. (I reported at the time that his business card read, “I’m CEO … bitch.” He quickly threw away those cards and eliminated such “brogrammer” language from his vocabulary.)
I was in the audience in 2010 when Zuckerberg suffered a sweaty meltdown under the withering assault of Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg. And I profiled Zuckerberg’s leadership skills late last year in Fortune, an admiring look at a never-would-have-guessed-it able manager.
Along the way, Zuckerberg has steered Facebook (FB) in a manner someone with such little preparation for the job never would have been expected to do. Two signal achievements, pivoting Facebook’s product from desktop to mobile and building a portfolio of brands, are management successes for the ages.
And so I believe in the wisdom of what he’s doing now. Every leader from America’s elite institutions is confused about the feelings of a populace with whom they’re clearly out of touch. Most don’t have a private jet and staff to arrange targeted trips to visit with ordinary folks. Fewer still are making the effort that Zuckerberg is making to figure things out.
Is he being self-serving? Sure. Is it a bad idea? No way.