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Ethical leadership requires 6 qualities—and Mark Zuckerberg lacks two of them, argues a management expert from NYU

November 6, 2021, 12:00 PM UTC

It’s been a difficult few weeks to be Mark Zuckerberg. Last month, in an explosive government committee hearing, whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former product manager, accused the social networking giant he founded of prioritizing profit over beating back misinformation, hate speech and other public threats. 

“The company’s leadership knows ways to make Facebook and Instagram safer and won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their immense profits before people,” Haugen told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on October 4th. “Congressional action is needed.”

The leadership in question is preventing Facebook, and newly revamped parent company Meta, from legitimately improving its culture, Haugen said. On Monday, she told a crowd of 40,000 at the Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal, that Zuckerberg should step down as CEO of Facebook parent Meta.

“I hope he can see there is so much good he can do in the world if he gave the chance to someone else,” Haugen said of Zuckerberg, adding that internal changes are unlikely if he retains power. To become stronger, the billion-dollar company needs a leader who will focus on user safety, she said.

Haugen has been outspoken about Zuckerberg’s personal culpability. In her SEC complaints, Haugen said Zuckerberg’s “singular power and unique level of control” over the company gives him the “ultimate responsibility” for the harm it causes, The Washington Post reported. “At the heart of these accusations is this idea that we prioritize profit over safety and well-being,” Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post shortly after Haugen’s testimony. “That’s just not true. I don’t know any tech company that sets out to build products that make people angry or depressed. The moral, business and product incentives all point in the opposite direction.”

“Founder-CEOs have superpowers that allow them to do courageous things. Mark has done that time and again,” Samidh Chakrabarti, Facebook’s former civic integrity unit head, tweeted in October in response to a question of whether Zuckerberg should keep his job. “But the trust deficit is real, and [Facebook] may now better prosper under distributed leadership.”

Despite the urges and persistent bad press, Zuckerberg hasn’t indicated he’s ready to vacate the seat he’s held since founding the company in 2004. As founder, CEO and board chairman, he and his allies control nearly 60% of Facebook’s voting shares. Last week, Zuckerberg told The Verge he “probably” still sees himself in his assorted leadership positions in five years.“I don’t have a specific date how long I want to be doing this for,” he said. “I guess what I could say is I’m very excited about the next chapter of what we’re doing.”

However unlikely, consider: if Zuckerberg were to step down, who would be fit to fill his shoes?

Tenets of leadership

There’s been a massive, gradual shift in societal expectations of a business, and, by extension, their CEOs, Jeffrey Younger, associate professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, told Fortune on Wednesday.

Look no further than Edelman’s 2021 Trust Barometer, which measured public sentiment across a group of over 33,000 global respondents. Sixty-eight percent of those respondents said “CEOs should step in when the government does not fix societal problems,” and 64% said CEOs should hold themselves accountable not just to their board of directors or shareholders, but to the public. 

To meet these standards, Facebook would, at its core, require a deep revamp. “Given the power and resources of multinational businesses, including Facebook, no government could either legislate or effectively enforce the depth and breadth of Facebook externalities,” Younger said. “Haugen has shown, based on its preferred business model, Facebook’s own societal safety net is sorely lacking.”

Effective, ethical leadership requires six core values, according to NYU Stern’s Leadership Accelerator program: agility, an innovative mindset, continuous learning, action-orientation, inclusivity and self-awareness. 

“To my mind, [Zuckerberg] lacks the last two,” Younger said. “Inclusivity (the ability to appreciate alternative mindsets) and self-awareness (an evolved sense of personal values and purpose).”

These attributes complement the “5 C’s” of leadership skills outlined by former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi: competency, courage and confidence, communication skills, consistency and compass, or moral integrity. Nooyi, Younger said, would thrive as Facebook’s next chief executive.

In the New York Times, opinion columnist Kara Swisher floated potential ideas for a Zuckerberg replacement, including Andrew Bosworth, a 15-year Facebook veteran recently promoted to chief technology officer, and Chris Cox, its chief product officer. 

“Zuckerberg could also stand pat and hope for the best, as he has before,” Swisher added. “Wall Street still loves him. His financial results shine. And his curiously silent board … is a willing accomplice.”

Executing damage control

The leader to fill Zuckerberg’s shoes would inherit a windfall of controversy and a negative reputation, which presents integration problems of its own. 

After nearly two decades with e-commerce giant Overstock, Jonathan Johnson became its CEO in August 2019, when its founder and CEO resigned after issuing “deep state conspir­acy theories.” 

“We were losing money; we were shrinking; we were unfocused,” Johnson, who is credited with Overstock’s massive turnaround and runaway success over the past two years, told Inc. “We had 27 quote-unquote key initiatives, which is like having no key initiatives. We spent a lot of time narrowing our focus.” 

Key to Johnson’s success as a leader in uncharted waters, he said, was having a steady stream of honest feedback. CEOs risk creating an echo chamber of what he calls “paid friends”: board members or coworkers who tell CEOs “all their bad ideas are good ideas because they want to stay on the payroll.”

At Facebook, Zuckerberg’s mistakes don’t make him, or the company, irredeemable, Haugen said towards the end of her panel. But his failure to act since becoming aware of the ripple effects of his mistakes still warrants his removal.

As an agile, continuously successful enterprise, Facebook would remain an exciting company to lead, particularly because of its vast reach. “Leadership is filled with small leadership opportunities,” Younger said. “Instead of an overarching top-down approach, every moment is a separate communication opportunity, and with each one, you need to get out of your own skin and empathize with the audience.”

“As a leader, you’re a role model, and people in your organization are watching how you behave,” Ning Xu, an assistant professor at the Stockholm School of Economics, told Fortune. “Morally or immorally, that sets the tone.” 

Particularly at a company like Facebook, which affects billions of people each day, an ideal leader would have a deep well of empathy tied to each decision he or she may make. “Some of the best leaders are amazing sponges,” Younger said. 

“We traditionally think of leaders as assertive, but nowadays, we expect them to be more empathetic, and able to put themselves in others’ shoes,” Xu added. “And they really ought to put their customers’ interests before their own.”

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