Mark Zuckerberg has never had a boss—and that’s made Facebook dangerous

It’s good to know what it’s like not to be in charge.
It’s good to know what it’s like not to be in charge.
Image: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
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There’s a telling anecdote in Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes’ recent New York Times op-ed arguing that it’s time to break up the social media giant. When Yahoo sought to buy Facebook for $1 billion back in 2006, CEO Mark Zuckerberg resisted because he didn’t like the idea of working for Yahoo’s then-boss, Terry Semel.

“Outside of a couple of gigs in college,” Hughes writes, “Mark had never had a real boss and seemed entirely uninterested in the prospect.”

Not much has changed on that count. Facebook is a public company now and it has a board of directors, but Zuckerberg, who serves as board chair, still controls around 60% of the voting shares. This set-up effectively reduces the power of the board to that of an advisory body, Hughes argues. Nor does Zuckerberg answer to government overseers, who have largely left the internet an unregulated playground.

All these years, Zuckerberg has never had to worry much about accountability. And that helps explain his weaknesses as a leader, which have in turn led Facebook into its current mess.

The value of having a boss

A big part of the appeal of entrepreneurship is that you get to be your own boss. But that’s a privilege best appreciated by those who’ve already had the experience of working for someone else. “You actually learn how to manage and you get some mentoring,” says Stanford University management professor Robert Sutton, the author of Good Boss, Bad Boss and The Asshole Survival Guide. Even a bad boss helps you figure out what not to do

Just as artists are advised to master the basics of sketching cubes and shading cylinders before they take on the world of portraits, so does it behoove most leaders to spend time working in other people’s companies. Indeed, despite Silicon Valley’s mythology around youthful college dropouts turned big-time founders, the entrepreneurs behind the fastest-growing companies tend be in their 40s when their businesses get off the ground. Chances are good that they’ve worked for other people by then.

The fact that Zuckerberg has never had a boss clearly hasn’t put a damper on Facebook’s growth. But his lack of accountability in both his past and present may have made him more susceptible to two issues that Sutton says are often associated with unchecked power: Power poisoning and moral licensing.

Power poisoning is the term used to describe a research-backed phenomenon in which the accumulation of power alters people’s behavior for the worse. In his book The Power Paradox, psychologist Dacher Keltner at the University of California, Berkeley, explains that the more power people get, the more likely they are to focus on their own needs and the less responsive they are to the needs of others. “They tend to see people as objects towards an end rather than having empathy for them,” Sutton says.

Sure enough, Zuckerberg has been roundly criticized for failing to display sufficient empathy for the people affected by Facebook’s decisions on issues ranging from privacy and censorship to fake news and even genocide. “People become numbers, algorithms become the rules, and reality becomes what the data says,” Om Malik summarized for The New Yorker back in 2016. Dehumanization also happens to be a convenient business strategy, as Nikhil Sonnad wrote in Quartz: “There are certain things you do not in good conscience do to humans. To data, you can do whatever you like.”

Since the experience of power seems to make people feel less concerned about the welfare of others, it follows that reporting to someone else can serve a check on the atrophy of empathy. But Zuckerberg doesn’t have to worry about checks and balances. Thanks to some crafty corporate structuring, Zuckerberg is, in the words of Yale management professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, Facebook’s “emperor for life.” 

Another common problem for Zuckerberg and other Silicon Valley entrepreneurs is the issue of moral licensing, according to Sutton. Psychological research shows that people who feel they’ve done good in the past may give themselves permission (pdf) to behave less ethically in the present.

Sure enough, Zuckerberg has shown an inclination to this kind of thinking. In a 2018 New Yorker profile, he discussed his admiration for the ancient Roman emperor Augustus. “Basically, through a really harsh approach, he established two hundred years of world peace,” Zuckerberg said. “On the one hand, world peace is a long-term goal that people talk about today … [but] that didn’t come for free, and he had to do certain things.”

In this case, Zuckerberg’s remarks are centered on the philosophical concept of consequentialism—the idea that the ends can justify the means. But more broadly, it’s easy to see how Zuckerberg’s faith in the fundamental goodness of his stated mission to connect the world may lead him to spend less time thinking about the casualties of his quest.

In an interview with Kara Swisher, Zuckerberg once explained why Facebook had been slow to act to combat the spread of misinformation on the site: “In retrospect, I do think it’s fair to say that we were overly idealistic and focused on more of the good parts of what connecting people and giving people a voice can bring.”

Once again, the experience of having a boss—particularly a bad one—might have made Zuckerberg more aware of the ways that moral licensing can take hold. It’s one thing to shrug off Augustus Caesar’s penchant for violence as being necessary for the greater good when you’re reading about it in a history book; it’s quite another to work for a modern-day Augustus who justifies his horrible treatment of employees with the righteousness of his mission.

“From our earliest days, Mark used the word ‘domination’ to describe our ambitions, with no hint of irony or humility,” Hughes writes in the Times—not that he faults Zuckerberg for thinking that way: “He has demonstrated nothing more nefarious than the virtuous hustle of a talented entrepreneur.”

Of course, when you have little to no experience to draw from, it’s a lot easier to convince yourself that embarking upon a single-minded quest to crush your competitors and achieve global domination isn’t at odds with the dream of making the world a better place. It’s just what any self-respecting hustler would do.

When you don’t know what can’t be done

It’s no wonder Silicon Valley is captivated by entrepreneurial leaders like Zuckerberg or Uber’s Travis Kalanick, who similarly started his first business in college. As Sutton notes, in the startup world, “there are advantages to having young people who don’t know what can’t be done.”

But there are clear drawbacks, too. Hughes, who left Facebook in 2007, isn’t just worried that the company he helped create while he and Zuckerberg were students together at Harvard has become a monopoly. He’s also concerned that his friend and former partner has accumulated a level of influence that is “unprecedented and un-American” for any one person, whether in the private sector or in government. Hughes writes:

He controls three core communications platforms—Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp—that billions of people use every day. … Mark alone can decide how to configure Facebook’s algorithms to determine what people see in their News Feeds, what privacy settings they can use and even which messages get delivered. He sets the rules for how to distinguish violent and incendiary speech from the merely offensive, and he can choose to shut down a competitor by acquiring, blocking or copying it.

That’s way too much power for any individual, according to Hughes, even someone he believes to be a “good, kind person”—and so it’s time, he argues, for the government to step in and break up the company. “Mark Zuckerberg cannot fix Facebook,” Hughes concludes. And he’s probably right. Just don’t expect Zuckerberg to listen.