What Scandalized Companies Like Facebook and Uber Can Learn From Jay-Z
By adopting four key principles, leaders can help avert scandals while also learning more about themselves.
Watch the news every night for a week, and you will see that ethical scandals in business show no signs of disappearing. Whether it is a large corporation like Facebook, Uber or Wells Fargo or even a small, local dry cleaners, the frequency and impact of organizational misconduct just seems to grow.
But beyond the trends and statistics, wrongdoing in business is about people, their choices and the impact of those choices. When a scandal occurs, careers can be destroyed, loyal friends or customers can flee for good, and innocent lives can be ruined.
One person who knows this all too well is rap legend and business mogul Jay-Z. Raised on the streets of Brooklyn, Jay-Z (born Shawn Carter) has been wildly successful on nearly every front. Yet, despite being one of the wealthiest musicians of all time, his own net worth of more than $800 million did not shield him from his own scandal. In fact, this recent crisis prompted him to question his life-long attitude of winning-at-all-costs and instead embrace a very different, more compassionate value.
The losing proposition of “winning-at-all-costs.”
Like many successful entrepreneurs, Jay-Z’s own laser-focus on winning-at-all-costs blinded him to many of its darker elements. For Jay-Z, the reckoning occurred in 2014 when it came to light that he had been cheating on his wife, fellow superstar Beyoncé. The rapper recently shared that rather than walk away from his marriage and family, he chose instead to do everything he could to save it. This process started with taking a hard look at himself.
Through a commitment to rigorous self-examination, he was able to let go of many life-long beliefs and adopt a new mindset that can best be summarized as four key principles. Even though Jay-Z made these changes to salvage his marriage, the four principles are effective in almost any setting, especially for leaders committed to improving a business’s culture and avoiding scandals.
1. Accountability: expressing responsibility for actions and their subsequent impact.
In business, success is often seen as gaining dominance over one’s competitors by being smarter, more innovative and more efficient. With that mindset, there is no space for admitting one’s shortcomings or examining their origins.
However, all businesses, as well as all human beings, make mistakes that hurt others. Yet when unacknowledged, mistakes grow more toxic and result in greater, more lasting damage.
When his wife learned of his infidelity, Jay-Z realized that to save his marriage he had to admit not just his wrongdoing, but also the flawed mindset that gave rise to it. In business, this kind of fearless self-examination and accountability are rare.
Case in point is Uber’s embattled former CEO Travis Kalanick. When Kalanick left the company, it was amid accusations of sexual misconduct, verbal abuse and a host of unethical and illegal business practices. As reported, Kalanick assumed little responsibility for these misdeeds. In fact, before his departure, Kalanick complained that his only problem was that he was grossly misunderstood.
2. Vulnerability: revealing imperfections and weakness while avoiding blame or defensiveness.
If accountability is about taking ownership for harmful or deficient things one has done, vulnerability is about revealing weakness or imperfections in one’s character or make-up. In business, vulnerability, like accountability, is rarely openly acknowledged.
Yet, for improvement to occur, there must be an honest recognition of where change is needed and why. Ironically, leaders’ overconfidence and unwillingness to be vulnerable may be one reason scandals are on the rise. For example, a 2015 study by Deloitte found that corporate leaders are consistently more confident than they have reason to be when estimating their company’s ability to respond to scandals and crises.
As Jay-Z’s marriage was about to collapse, he realized that a lifetime of success had made him too overconfident. This recognition helped him see that his infidelity was largely caused by his fear of being vulnerable with his wife. He knew that if his marriage to Beyoncé was going to survive, this had to change.
To do his part, Jay-Z made a commitment to being more vulnerable with those closest him. He sought help for this from a qualified therapist and over time has seen the benefits. As he shared in 2017, “To expose your feelings, to be vulnerable in front of the world. That’s real strength. You know, you feel like you gotta be this guarded person. That’s not real. It’s fake.”
3. Empathy: an intimate awareness of the struggles and/or emotions experienced by another person.
Traditional business values downplay empathy and emotions in favor of logic and intellect. While this thinking may have worked in the industrial age, in today’s business environment, it simply ignores the facts.
It is even easier to ignore emotion when a company or powerful individual has done harm. Yet to ensure problem behaviors are not repeated, it is crucial the offending party develop empathy for what the victim is feeling. When Jay-Z was working to save his marriage, he knew he needed to have a full and accurate understanding of the harm he had caused Beyoncé.
He was well aware that acquiring this understand meant having some very difficult conversations with his wife. He recognized that unless he could relate to exactly what she felt, there would always be a risk he would fall into the same behaviors again.
4. Amends: actions taken to repair the damage or loss one has caused another.
Typically, when an individual or company makes amends, they usually make a statement of apology that pain was caused. However, simply saying “I’m sorry” generally does little to repair the damage done. This is the reason such gestures can often leave the offended party feeling strangely victimized a second time.
In the wake of Facebook’s recent scandal involving unethical data mining by the British firm Cambridge Analytica, many Facebook users were not happy and felt that the company was out of touch with their sense of being violated. This may be one reason why a majority of independent shareholders now believe that it is time for CEO Mark Zuckerberg to go.
Jay-Z understands these risks. When his infidelity was exposed, he knew that a mere “I’m sorry, and I promise I’ll do better” would not be nearly enough. It was clear to him that if trust was to be restored, he needed to take action that resulted in substantial changes in what he brought to their relationship. This clarity, in turn, led him to undergo the intense level of soul-searching that helped save his marriage and put his relationship with Beyoncé on new footing.
What it takes to make it.
Companies like Facebook and Uber can only survive over the long term if they recognize that their primary strength is not in their technology; it is in the relationships they build over time with their users. And like a successful marriage, those relationships will only endure if they are based on fearless self-analysis and an unrelenting willingness to change for the better.