Two Tales of Ham-Fisted Leadership

One might assume that the leadership challenges facing Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook and Roger Goodell at the National Football League don’t have much in common — but when talking about inept leadership in modern times, some universal truths do indeed emerge.

First, let’s recap each man’s leadership bungles individually. We’ll start with Zuckerberg.

The spark that ignited his latest corporate ethics conflagration happened on May 28. Zuckerberg appeared on Fox News (a warning sign right there) to talk about social media companies’ responsibility for fact-checking false and malicious statements made on their platforms by President Trump or other politicians

The entire interview was 20 minutes long, but the money quote was this statement:

“I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online. Private companies probably shouldn’t be, especially these platform companies, shouldn’t be in the position of doing that.”

You can imagine how that declaration of irresponsibility fared with Facebook employees. Hundreds of them staged a “virtual walkout” three days later, which essentially meant they posted an out-of-office message on their computers for the day since most Facebook employees already work from home. 

Petitions, threats of resignation, and hot-headed chatter on internal company message boards ensued. One employee’s response: “The lack of backbone, and this weak leadership, will be judged by history. Hate speech should never be compared to free speech.” Those two sentences speak volumes about employees’ dissatisfaction with Zuckerberg’s stance.

Eventually, of course, Zuckerberg reversed course. On June 5 he announced that the company will “review our policies” (whatever that means) around posts that encourage police violence or voter suppression. Facebook will also consider new mechanisms to “review potential options for handling violating or partially-violating content” beyond the current choices of leaving said content on Facebook or removing it entirely.

Will that policy review lead to any substantive changes in how Facebook policies egregiously false and malicious content? Who knows. Anyway, that’s the scandal of the moment at Facebook. 

Ethical Offsides at NFL

Goodell faced his own crisis at the NFL last week, when players began speaking up about the racial justice protests happening across the United States. 

By the middle of last week, NFL wide receiver Michael Thomas and other players had begun working clandestinely with an NFL social media employees to produce a video statement published on Twitter. Other employees were griping internally that the league had not spoken out forcefully enough about the killing of George Floyd and the systemic racism black Americans still face. 

Thomas’ video dropped on Twitter on the evening of Thursday, June 4. Within 24 hours, Goodell released his own statement — which looks like he recorded it with an iPhone 2 in his basement man cave — where he admitted that the NFL had been wrong to squelch players’ protests of racial injustice, and encouraged continued peaceful protest in the future. 

That was quite the about-face for Goodell, and immediately raised questions about how he handled the plight of Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback who began kneeling during the national anthem in 216 to protest racial injustice. Kaerpnick was released from his team and hasn’t played a professional game since. 

Goodell’s statement capped a rather loud week for NFL voices. First, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who is white, opened his mouth to say, “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country.” That led to a torrent of criticism from other players; even LeBron James threw a verbal elbow from his perch in the NBA. Brees later apologized

So Goodell, after years of frowning on player protests during the national anthem, finally ran in the opposite direction and said players should protest social injustice:

“We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest… I personally protest with you and want to be part of the much-needed change in this country. ”

Players, including Thomas, welcomed the statement. 

The Common Leadership Thread

What’s interesting is that in both organizations, employees rebelled against management to put forth their own ideas of what the company’s core values and ethics should be — and both groups at least partially succeeded. 

Sure, Zuckerberg might not make any substantive changes in Facebook policy. Goodell may slither out of his ethical skin by September and declare that players can’t kneel during the national anthem after all (which is NFL policy as of today). 

Here and now, however, employees pressed their case for corporate ethics forcefully and skillfully, and got two powerful CEOs to reverse course. That’s no small thing. It would not have happened 25 years ago. 

More to the point for corporate compliance officers, it’s likely to happen much more often in years to come. 

Why? First, thank social media. It allows us to document conduct both good and bad, and then disseminate our views about that conduct — complete with evidence — far and wide. 

Theoretically that’s nothing new; employees, customers, and consumer groups have circulated petitions and complaints about corporate ethical behavior for decades. Social media just allows everyone to do so on a vast scale, where various stakeholder groups can forge alliances that they previously couldn’t. 

Second, organizations that depend on skilled labor, such as a technology company or a professional sports league, are especially vulnerable to these new ethical battles. Even today, brilliant software coders can find lucrative employment easily; so if Zuckerberg didn’t make some gesture to unhappy employees, they’d quit. The NFL is a different type of monopoly business, but its employees still have enormous power thanks to their fame. They know it, and aren’t afraid to exercise it. 

Similar eruptions have happened before, usually over a company’s work with the Trump Administration in migrant detection, surveillance, or some other controversy President Trump has inflamed. Lately it’s been the Black Lives Matter movement and social justice protests. Companies have stampeded to publish statements that they stand on the side of racial equity — and for good reason. The black eyes suffered by Facebook and the NFL show just how powerfully employees can punch back at those that don’t.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.