Do You Have What It Takes To Be An Entrepreneur?
The sad story about Tony Hsieh remembers that the founders’ isolation can be a problem that comes up too often
The story is always very much the same. Much stress, a big deal of pressure, some old ghosts chasing you, and a sad ending. There’s always a person behind the persona, and that person is usually weaker, more contradictory. In short, a normal human being capable of the best and the worse, as we all are.
When you do big things, you carry an enormous burden, maybe too big for a single mind. The higher you climb, the harder you fall. That’s been apparently the story of one of the most interesting, promising, disruptive, admired entrepreneur of the last decades: Tony Hsieh (1973–2020).
I first heard about holacracies a few years ago, and I thought it was probably one of the most 21st Century-Esque concepts I came across in years. A completely flat organization, based on purpose, agility, autonomy. A happy organization where there are no managers, just happy people working all together for the common goal. The example of Zappos became famous and analyzed by the mainstream management research (The Zappos Holacracy Experiment), and converted into a kind of reference for a new corporate culture (Delivering Happiness).
As he passed away a few weeks ago, I have to admit I wanted to write something to praise what I thought was one of the most relevant visionaries in the entrepreneurship ecosystem. Though, when I started reading and documenting for this article, I sadly started finding a dark side of the idea and the person. As it is usual today, in the age of ambiguity and fake news, it’s almost impossible to discern where’s the truth, what’s right or wrong. But it seems that, as it is common too, ideas are not that pure when intricate people touch them. It’s not only about real life and personal nuances (The Death of Zappos’s Tony Hsieh: A Spiral of Alcohol, Drugs and Extreme Behavior), but also how thin and blurred can become the line between a vision and what it may seem to be a cult.
The Zappos CEO wants to create a self-managing work environment, but his leadership style is far more authoritarian in practice. All Tony Hsieh’s Friends Got Matching Tattoos. As WSJ published, “candidates have to join a social network, called Zappos Insiders, where they will network with current employees and demonstrate their passion for the company — in some cases publicly — in hopes that recruiters will tap them when jobs come open.” Quartz wrote that “A nine-point checklist on leadership and control suggests Zappos functions like a cult.” And just one more example from Entrepreneur: “When he first announced the buyouts for people who disagreed with holacracy, he also set up requirements designed to make you think twice. You had to first sit through a movie from Frederic Laloux, author of Reinventing Organizations, and you had to read his book.”
As some former employee pointed out in Glassdoor, they described zappos as “A true family environment, with all of the dysfunction that entails.”
I don’t know whether I should be disappointed with the company (for deceiving the supporters, corrupting and ruining a vision), with journalism (for trying to find the darkest and creepiest angle of everything to get more clicks), or just with myself (for being so naive to think that a promising idea can’t do anything but derail in the hands of a group of people).
As Jim Collins found in his research for Built to Last “ Architects of visionary companies don’t just trust in good intentions or values statements; they build cult-like cultures around their core ideologies. One of the steps to creating a cult-like environment is to develop your own language around what you do and Walt Disney created an internal language to reinforce his company’s ideology. Disneyland employees are “cast members.” Customers are “guests.” Jobs are “parts” in a “performance.” Disney required — as the company still does to this day — that all new employees go through a “Disney Traditions” orientation course, in which they learn the company’s business is to make people happy.”
There are other extremely successful companies that have managed to build a cult-like following from their employees and customers; companies like Apple, Tesla, Zappos, Southwest Airlines, Nordstrom and Harley Davidson spring to mind. If you look below the surface you will find most of the techniques that hard core cults use, in operation in these businesses.
Again, I don’t know whether we should look for some troubled past in every legendary entrepreneur, or this is the price they pay for being successful, rich, and therefore exposed to every kind of scrutiny and envy. But yes, the story of Hsieh was another one of “a man who made it his mission to “deliver happiness” seemed unable to find it in his own life.”
Is it possible to be successful and balanced?
Is it possible to be successful and balanced? Are we at grave risk of going nuts as soon as we become rich, famous, successful? Is it too much for a single human mind? I’d like to find some counterexamples, but as Inc. reported, “he is not the first entrepreneur to have met a tragic end and, sadly, he likely won’t be the last. Founders are 30 percent more likely than non-founders to report a history of depression, according to a study led by Michael Freeman, a psychiatry professor at the University of California, San Francisco. The entrepreneurial life can already be isolating. The intensity is what Amy Buechler, a licensed psychotherapist and the former in-house coach at startup accelerator Y Combinator, calls a “default state” for founders.