The Great Man Theory

The Great Man Theory of Leadership posits that there’s a set of inherent traits in great leaders that allow them to rise above others and are therefore subjects of admiration:

The great man theory of leadership states that some people are born with the necessary attributes that set them apart from others and that these traits are responsible for their assuming positions of power and authority. A leader is a hero who accomplishes goals against all odds for his followers.

In tech, for the past 2 decades or more, this has taken the form of the genius founder-CEO, the singular figure with both a world-changing idea and the sheer will and grit to spread that idea to the world. This is what culminated in the cult of the founder.

True to the idea that everybody looks like a genius when the markets are going up, the recent tech downturn has scratched some of that luster off that sheen. With valuations and market caps trending downwards, investors and employees look to executives for accountability and they get the blame, rightfully so or otherwise. In tech anyway, greatness is still mostly subservient to macro conditions, and when the market dips in the wrong direction even the revered elder statesmen of our industry can look a bit silly.

While some of the schadenfreude of recent founder issues are simply instances of building something up to subsequently tear it down, it’s curious timing that some of the most influential tech companies of the 2010s—Google, Twitter, Microsoft, Amazon—had their founder-CEOs step down from their role and had others continue running their firms1. It felt like that in the last decade, we reached the absolute zenith of power and influence for tech companies and their founders, and perhaps they foresaw the turbulence to come and decided to exit on a high note. The set of CEOs who have inherited these enterprises get to deal with rowdy investors and in Twitter’s case, escalating drama.

So you’d think that we would learn our lessons at some point, that it’s gross misattribution to lay a corporation’s—or a country’s, even—success and failure at the feet of a singular individual. Yet, it’s a powerful simplification of a complex entity; we don’t have to understand how things really work, we just have to identify the person at the top. Most of us intellectually understand that a single person can’t do everything a company needs to do by themselves, yet a part of us kinda wants to believe that’s possible. People still look up to iconic figures like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk2 as leaders to admire and possibly emulate.

All that said, of course the top-most leader of an organization is its most important individual, and of course they have the most influence as a singular voice. But rather than studying stories of how some of these leaders micromanage their teams or make snap judgements on products3, I admire CEOs who are able to attract and retain great talent, the collection of folks who make up the rest of the organization and are the ones doing great work.

In the early days of Square, only a few years after founding the startup, Jack Dorsey decided that he’d also run Twitter at the same time and serve as the CEO of 2 major tech companies, simultaneously. Twitter stayed a mess throughout his tenure there, but we had a group of excellent C-Suite and VP execs running Square, and I credit Jack with getting them in the door and empowering them to run their functions. Our executive competence enabled him to spend as much time as he did over at Twitter, but they won’t get nearly the accolades they deserve in building and sustaining a modern, exemplary tech company.

  1. Though some credit should be given that in all these cases, the successors have been with the company for a long time; they did not just go out to hire a professional CEO or a brand name.

  2. With the Twitter saga, maybe less so.

  3. Which is, more often than not, glorified seagull management.

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