Leadership Lessons From… Julian Assange?
WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange may have been nominated for TIME Magazine's Person of the year but his leadership style could use a little work.
The recent documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks sheds light on the mysterious man behind the organization known for publishing top-secret government intel and how the wrong figurehead rises to the top. Directed by Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney, the film, which was released in May, begins with the origin story of WikiLeaks and then parallels the group’s popularity with the unhealthy inflation of Assange’s ego.
Some blame his arrogance for his legal troubles and current home at London's Ecuadorian embassy, where he has been holed up after allegations of sexual misconduct came to light over a year ago.
And though today he still commands loyalty among many, the film's depiction of Assange as a man steered by his own vendettas provides a parable for what not to do as a leader. Here are five leadership lessons inspired by the life and times of Julian Assange:
1. When your vision isn't working, it's okay to change.
If anyone stands by their beliefs it is Assange. Before WikiLeaks released controversial information about the Iraq War, Assange was a guy in a cheap suit with a big vision. He made appearances primarily to raise awareness about his organization and highlight the security features his team built to protect whistleblowers. Assange’s message was bulletproof because of its simplicity: Send us information and we’ll post it. The basic ethos of this message has protected Assange in the eyes of his followers, yet it is also a factor that led to his downfall.
Bottom line: A strong vision is key for a startup, but if it needs to be tweaked, embrace change. Otherwise, you may be left standing alone with just a vision.
2. Be ethical always, even when taking a stand.
Assange's refusal to edit any information that comes to WikiLeaks from anonymous sources has put both national security and people's lives at risk. Had he edited out the names of informants, the ethical basis for releasing information would have been maintained.
Bottom line: You can topple long-held traditions, but you'd better have a good reason for your approach and be able to live with your choices. Remember that being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian, doesn't work.
3. Keep your personal life out of the workday.
While Assange has no problem releasing other people's information, he is tight-lipped when it comes to his own life. To the point where people in the documentary state he would send out contracts that threaten fines if any information about his personal life are revealed. Unfortunately for Assange, the most damning accounts of his ego come from those who worked closely with him.
Bottom line: While a founder of a startup shouldn't go to this length, as it alienates employees and could spark resentment, it is wise to keep your personal life private. If you have a problem blabbing, try and treat every person in your organization as if they’re already writing an unauthorized tell-all book about your life.
4. Engage with others, even outsiders.
Assange refused to be interviewed for the documentary, claiming the going rate for an interview was around $1 million. Had Assange been willing to appear on camera, perhaps a different picture of him would've emerged -- a better one than the image the words of his ex-employees and partners paint.
Bottom line: As a leader of your business you exchange your anonymity for an audience. When dealing with the media, it's better to play ball than sit on the bench. By doing so, you have more control of your personal brand and speculation is kept at bay.
5. Be the face behind the business.
In We Steal Secrets, the controversy regarding pending legal charges pertaining to sexual offenses from two Swedish women is discussed. People will have their own opinions about the accusations, but hearing it from the perspective of his accusers puts the situation into a darker light. The film doesn’t indict him for committing what he’s accused of but for giving in to his own narcissism.
Bottom line: Interviewees agree that Assange changed after fame hit him, which is something you can’t allow yourself to do. Like it or not, your business is a reflection of how you should be living your life. It’s your job to be an inspiration for your employees, followers and the public.
Did you see the film? What other lessons could we learn from Assange's leadership style? Let us know in the comments below.