Many brilliant, forceful leaders truly believe that there is in the world one person who is truly indispensable and that by virtue of making it to the top of whatever empire they run, they are made for life.
Most don’t make it very long. Even some that seem destined to rule forever—wily dictators like Papa Doc Duvalier, the Shah of Iran, and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi—don’t actually make it to the end, overtaken by history and their own internal rot.
But there’s another breed of absolute leaders, a very select group who, through a combination of savvy politics and cultivations of true believers, figure out a way to get on top and stay there for life, no matter the criticism, no matter the result.
The current class of world leaders most likely to succeed this way includes, by my counting, Vladamir Putin, Xi Jingping, Jack Ma, and Mark Zuckerberg, all of whom seem to have discovered the secret formula for survival, even at the expense of their own constituents.
With a stunning 19% plunge in its share price, Zuckerberg’s colossus erased more than $110 billion in shareholder value in a single day on Thursday, as investors finally started paying attention to the growing warning signs around the company. Privacy concerns, increasing regulation, and now slowing revenue growth all conspired to sack the stock and potentially ignite a sell-off in the sector.
The problem, of course, is that there is nothing to be done other than sell. With a dual-share structure that insures total effective control of Facebook by Zuckerberg for as long as he lives (and maybe beyond), he’s the king and will remain that way, no matter what. A bet on Facebook has always been a bet on Zuckerberg—a great bet, until it wasn’t. It’s terrible structure not just for investors, but for Zuckerberg as well. With total board control and the ability to suppress any internal criticism, unbridled leaders can be left alone to believe their own spin and do not question themselves until catastrophe hits.
There have been plenty of warning signs that this is the case at Facebook. Zuckerberg’s adolescent initial leadership style set the stage for a historically disastrous IPO. He did not go on road shows, hid under his hoodie, and was disdainful of critics. Yes, he’s learned with some great mentors on his board. But he has also been dismissive of privacy concerns, misrepresented known complicity in political campaign mischief, misstated compliance with past FCC decrees, neglected demographic fall off from his main product line, and failed to anticipate declining revenue and user growth.
The question here is, of course, the usual one everyone asks during this part of the play: Where was the board, chock-a-block with strong, informed, experience board members such as Marc Andreessen, Erskine Bowles, Reed Hastings, and Peter Thiel? Where were they as Zuckerberg issued reckless responses to issues such as privacy and Holocaust deniers and let his creaky business model atrophy in such a swift moving space?
There’s still time for them to answer. Since Zuckerberg can effectively not be fired, the board must work doubly hard to shake some sense into him. And, to his credit, Zuckerberg has been a great learner when he gets get sharp feedback and guidance.
The Facebook board must be pushed to provide diligent oversight at this point. Will it make a difference? Only one man has the answer to that question. And he’s not going anywhere.