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What still needs a makeover at Facebook: Mark Zuckerberg’s leadership style

November 1, 2021, 8:02 PM UTC

When the company known up until recently as Facebook announced a new name and primary mission last week, its chief executive underscored his commitment to building a virtual reality “metaverse” by delivering his entire keynote overview in the form of a digital avatar. 

Wait, scratch that. That was the real, flesh-and-blood Mark Zuckerberg holding forth for more than an hour about Meta (the company’s new name) and its future strategy. He just seemed like an avatar because, well, because he’s always given off a distinctly uncanny valley vibe—like a near-human who is trying a little too hard to seem normal, and in the process comes across as profoundly off-putting and somewhat unnerving

This is not (just) a snarky observation. The unveiling of its new phase as Meta accidentally revealed that in addition to updating its brand and its business model there’s one more thing that needs a makeover: its CEO. 

That is not to say that Zuckerberg needs to be replaced in his actual job. Even if that were a possibility—and given his majority control of the company, it’s not—the fact is that for all the criticism of Facebook, Zuckerberg has delivered like crazy to shareholders. And it’s also not to say that Zuck needs to drop that Caesar haircut, or that his all-black semi-ninja outfit was kind of puzzling. 

The bigger point is that it’s time for Meta to acknowledge that trying to make Zuckerberg either a relatable or aspirational face of the company is not helping. Whether or not Zuckerberg is really a visionary who can see tomorrow, he remains a terrible salesman for that vision. He’s been trying for years to come across as a regular guy (Just having a backyard barbecue, y’all!) and perhaps in real life, he is. But as a public figure, he is a jumble of stilted speech and unnatural gestures (no human being constantly moves their hands the way Zuckerberg does throughout this keynote). Or just outright weirdness: It’s unclear what he was trying to achieve by sharing a video of himself surfing with a big American flag to the sounds of John Denver; maybe he wanted to prove that his actual existence is even more outlandish than the best deepfake you can imagine?

In short, we have a completely unrelatable man offering a jargon-filled description of a future that makes sense only to professional tech reporters, venture capitalists, and Black Mirror writers. No normal person wants to hang out with this guy, let alone live in a world that he built and controls. 

The CEO as public company face is a familiar idea and occasionally a successful one. Examples include Lee Iacocca and Dave Thomas, who were at the center of ad campaigns for Chrysler and Wendy’s. For whatever reason, tech CEOs seem much more likely to be quasi-public figures, and, of course, Steve Jobs set that standard, turning Apple product announcements into suspenseful and at times dazzling public events. 

Unlike Zuck, Jobs was not in any way trying to be relatable. He was trying to be infinitely cooler than you are. And more to the point, he was succeeding. That’s rare. Company founders in general drastically overrate their aspirational power. And some of the obvious examples of coming close to replicating Jobsian flair—Elizabeth Holmes, Adam Neumann—haven’t worked out so well. 

There’s no way Zuckerberg will ever radiate charisma, so it’s understandable that his handlers have instead sought to make him seem like a smart but cheerful normie. That syncs with the goal of making the Meta message more “Let’s make the world better!” and less “Let’s build a completely fake world where we can go to play make-believe while this one disintegrates.” 

But keeping the boss so insistently in the spotlight is a strategy with real consequences. Research by Chia-Jung Tsay, an associate professor at the UCL School of Management, found that the effectiveness of an entrepreneur’s stage presence when pitching investors—“especially body language and facial expressions,” she wrote in the Harvard Business Review—strongly predicts the likelihood of landing funding. Presumably something similar applies to a CEO pitch to the public: We read into their presence, their energy, their sincerity, their general affect. And in Zuckerberg’s case, he comes across as excited and sincere but still leaves viewers uneasy. If he invited you to a party, would you go?

The Meta announcement basically acknowledged this but took an extra step to try to make Zuckerberg seem like a harmless and friendly figure. A number of (meta?) Easter eggs called back some of those past instances of Zuckerberg seeming really weird in public: a surfboard, barbecue sauce, and other inside references. “While Mr. Zuckerberg has struggled to make himself seem empathetic and relatable,” the New York Times observed, “he and his army of press handlers seem to have figured out that a little self-deprecation goes a long way in making a man worth $116 billion look a bit more normal.”

The urge is understandable. Facebook as a product and Meta as a company have a reputation for being invasive, manipulative, and corrosive. So why not calm people down by trotting out the guy in charge and demonstrating that he’s a regular guy? 

But having given it their best shot, Zuckerberg and his handlers should really stop this strategy. It’s not that he’s being inauthentic. It’s that he authentically lives a life that the vast majority of humanity simply cannot comprehend—and he doesn’t seem to understand ours, either. 

This particular guy is not a regular guy—and that’s fine! I am fully prepared to believe that Zuckerberg is a nice guy, a loving husband and father, and an actual human being who truly means well; I’ll also buy that he is smarter than I am. But he’s not an average Joe. 

So instead of trying to humanize him, Zuckerberg’s handlers should do the opposite: slather him with mystery and mystique. Don’t make him normal and chatty; make him elusive, a sphinx. Find others to do the talking and pitching and Meta-hyping. Zuckerberg may well be the wizard of whatever version of Oz we’re all, for better or worse, hurtling toward. But he should probably stay behind the proverbial curtain. 

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