Should Entrepreneurial Success Come At the Cost Of Empathy?

We need leaders and entrepreneurs who avoid self-absorption, however grand their ambitions be or however smart they are
Should Entrepreneurial Success Come At the Cost Of Empathy?
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Founder, Inflexion Point
6 min read
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At the height of the industrial revolution, Henry Ford, the father of modern assembly line, infamously quipped, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” For his workers, Ford had to say, “Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?”

Thomas Edison, one of the most famous inventors of all time, was known to be harsh to his employees and indifferent to his family members.  The Wizard of the Menlo Park was reported to have stolen several inventions, including that of the incandescent lamp, and claimed ownership and commercial gains. Edison even declared, “Everyone steals in industry and commerce. I've stolen a lot myself. The thing is to know how to steal.” Such actions and statements can only stem from a lack of compassion and empathy, where personal gains take priority overthinking and feeling for others. Can somebody getaway by making that statement today? Seems like.

Fast forward to the present world of business, and you see swaths of business leaders and entrepreneurs exhibiting their recklessness and lack of empathy. Steve Jobs was infamous for yelling at people with his expression, “That's the dumbest idea I've ever heard!” He would insult his employees publicly, get abusive with senior leaders at Apple, and continued parking in handicapped spaces at Apple. Bill Gates, especially in his younger days, used to yell to his employees claiming, “This is the stupidest piece of code ever written,” and used to write flame mails marking the whole lot while reviewing each line of code. Jeff Bezos didn’t mind firing one of the earliest employees at Amazon, Shel Kaplan, though according to the author Brad Stone, Bezos had almost promised that he won’t ever let Kaplan go. Along the journey, Bezos let several senior leaders exit and tolerated gruelling work conditions at Amazon. 

The recent billionaire, Elon Musk, has stormed the Twitter on several occasions with his reckless commentary on COVID-19 proceedings, and remarks on a wide range of topics, from government functioning to environment and science. He declared that “The coronavirus panic is dumb,” while several thousand were dying of the pandemic, daily. Travis Kalanick, the founder of Uber, had to step down from his own company owing to his personal misconduct and inability to handle accounts of sexual harassment and macho culture at Uber. In a similar vein, Adam Neumann, the founder of WeWork, had to step down on accounts of financial and personal misconduct. US President Donald Trump is no stranger to volleying insults at journalists, ministers, businessmen, and even strangers. And if you think being the President of the US is not entrepreneurial, think again. The list goes on, and this isn’t just a Western phenomenon, though largely pronounced in a more individualistic society and capitalistic system. Is this a sustainable model, let alone an inspirational one? Certainly not.

And then we have some other leaders, not necessarily entrepreneurs, who have chosen to lead through empathy. Satya Nadella, the chief of Microsoft, has almost turned around the culture at his company by the sheer power of empathy and has become the world’s best business leader. Business observers attribute Sundar Pichai’s self-deprecating and empathetic style of leadership as a key reason why he was picked up for the top job at Google. Tim Cook, the successor of Steve Jobs, is famous for his empathetic style of management, and so has Howard Schultz rebuilt Starbucks by giving empathy and compassion to its rightful place in business. It’s not about being a leader of Indian origin or an entrepreneur who has been humbled by failure, rather empathy is a matter of choice. You can choose to be empathetic and then the behavior cascades down the organization. 

So, what is the antidote? How do you maintain your sanity, empathy, compassion, and good business sense such that you not only retain your vision but also are able to inspire others along the way. As it turns out, we all need an alter-ego, and entrepreneurs need it the most.

The duo of Larry Page and Sergey Brin has shown the world that success can be achieved without burning oneself or others. Soon after starting Google, the founders realized the importance of having someone seasoned run the business and they brought in Eric Schmidt. It was a bold move, as you don’t see young founders often letting outsiders run the company and that too for long durations. Soon after Schmidt’s term got over, Pichai took on the baton and the founders are again busy with what they do best—managing technology and thinking about the future. 

Under the adult supervision of Schmidt, Google developed robust processes, management systems, acquisition, and integration capabilities, diversified into related technologies and products, and now Pichai is helping the tech behemoth surf the next wave of moonshots. Page and Bin write about Pichai: “Sundar brings humility and a deep passion for technology to our users, partners, and our employees every day. He shares our confidence in the value of the Alphabet structure, and the ability it provides us to tackle big challenges through technology. There is no one that we have relied on more since the Alphabet was founded, and no better person to lead Google and Alphabet into the future.” That is how you demonstrate humility and empathy.

As Daniel Goleman reminds us, “Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands.” We need leaders and entrepreneurs who avoid self-absorption, however grand their ambitions be or however smart they (think) they are. I sincerely hope more leaders understand the importance of empathy in the realm of business and appreciate that ‘compassionate capitalism’ is not an oxymoron and that enduring success calls for treating others with dignity.

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