“Mission-driven” leaders are losing their mystique

Conscious capitalist?
Conscious capitalist?
Image: Stephen Lam/REUTERS
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This week, business leaders convened in Philadelphia for the annual Conscious Capitalism conference, built around the idea that it’s possible to serve shareholders and do social good, too. Silicon Valley has long been ahead of this trend, successfully weaving socially conscious messaging into its rhetoric. But scandals at companies like Theranos, Zenefits, and Uber are injecting skepticism into the narrative about “mission-driven” leaders. (Uber, valued at $68 billion, has a mission to “make transportation as reliable as running water.”)

The controversy at high-tech women’s underwear startup Thinx, where founder Miki Agrawal espoused a feminist mission yet allegedly underpaid her young female employees and cultivated a toxic work culture, is an example of the complicated ethics of conscious capitalism. Or consider Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, who wrote a book about creating a values-driven company (2010’s Delivering Happiness) but struggled to follow his own advice with his next venture, the Downtown Project, an investment vehicle aiming to create “the most community-focused large city in the world” in five years or less. At a critical moment, as the Downtown Project was losing money at a rapid clip, he upended its mission to focus on profit.

Many eyes are now on Mark Zuckerberg, who recently sat down with Fast Company to affirm that Facebook, a multibillion-dollar public company, is foremost mission-driven. He’s currently on what ReCode describes as a “likability blitz,” including a US tour to talk to people in states he’s never visited before and the publication of a 6,000-word manifesto with a grand vision for creating a more connected world. He’s been both praised for his audacity and questioned for his authenticity.

Growth isn’t the only stress on mission-driven businesses. But it’s a big one that frequently forces leaders to either act on their stated values, or abandon them.