The New Yorker’s profile on Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook was fascinating reading — if you missed the last few years on Facebook, it’s an excellent place to see it all in one spot.
But, for a variety reasons, there was one theme that stood out: Zuckerberg’s apparent obsession with Augustus.
Augustus (born Octavius) is among the most storied of Roman Emperors. He defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra in the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, becoming princips, or first citizen. No doubt his military acumen was high — he expanded the Roman empire dramatically, adding to it Egypt, northern Spain and much of central Europe. Not only that, he was brutal in doing so. But it was neither Augustus’s ability to win wars, nor his techniques, that he is most remembered for.
It was his ability to win peace.
Up until the point when Augustus became emperor, Rome had almost perpetually been at war. Romans didn’t really understand peace as an acceptable or desirable state; they thought of it more as a rare and temporary situation where the opposition had been beaten back and lost the ability to resist. But despite being born in such a time — and clearly being adept at operating within it — Augustus’ success was due to his ability to move beyond it.
It was due to Augustus that the Pax Romana — latin for Roman Peace — emerged. It remains the longest period of peace and stability that Europe has seen in recorded history.
What, though, does any of this have to do with Facebook?
The companies inside the tech industry have been battling it out for the better part of the last fifty years. They’ve become highly evolved predators. Even by this standard, however, The New Yorker profile paints the picture of Zuckerberg as someone who is highly competitive:
Across the tech industry, the depth of Zuckerberg’s desire to win is often remarked upon. Dick Costolo, the former C.E.O. of Twitter, told me, “He’s a ruthless execution machine, and if he has decided to come after you, you’re going to take a beating.” Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, said, “There are a number of people in the Valley who have a perception of Mark that he’s really aggressive and competitive. I think some people are a little hesitant about him from that perspective.” Hoffman has been an investor in Facebook since its early days, but for a long time he sensed that Zuckerberg kept his distance because they were both building social networks. “For many years, it was, like, ‘Your LinkedIn thing is going to be crushed, so even though we’re friendly, I don’t want to get too close to you personally, because I’m going to crush you.’ Now, of course, that’s behind us and we’re good friends.”
“A ruthless execution machine” — this is the demeanor of someone who is excellent at winnings wars.
To be fair, Zuckerberg is hardly alone in the tech world. The classic example (one also drawn in the New Yorker article) is Bill Gates and Microsoft. Gates — also known as an intense competitor, and with Microsoft facing accusations of monopolistic behavior — testified to Congress that “the computer-software industry is not broken, and there is no need to fix it.” Within months, the Department of Justice sued Microsoft for violating federal antitrust law, leading to three years of legal agony before a settlement was reached.
And, of course, there’s the more recent and very well documented example of Uber, and its founder, Travis Kalanick. The company’s pugnaciousness, particularly in going up against local transportation regulators, was undoubtedly a big part of its success. And yet all the lessons it learned in winning those fights — and ignoring its critics — are intricately tied to why a resurgent Lyft is still able to challenge it today.
In fact, the comparison with Lyft is particularly revealing, because Lyft is in the exact same business as Uber, and yet the perception of it is completely different. Or take Airbnb. There’s a strong case to be made that ride sharing is actually much better for cities than apartment or house sharing. And yet, ask a random person on the street what they think of Uber as opposed to what they think of Airbnb… the differences are stark.
It’s not success that’s caused these problems (Uber and Airbnb are both successful). Nor is it the segment of the industry they’re operating in (Lyft and Uber are both in ride sharing).
There’s something else going on. These companies — whether Uber, Microsoft, Facebook, or others like them—have or had a founder at the helm who almost reflexively believe that the only way to succeed is to treat everything that stands in their way as something to be crushed. Even when it doesn’t make sense.
Said differently: they refuse to accept that they’ve won.
Therein lies the rub: what it takes for you to conquer your enemies is fundamentally different than what it takes to flourish as a victor. These founders cannot move past that old Roman mindset — of peace simply being a rare and temporary situation where the opposition has been beaten back.
And, in some ways, it’s understandable.
In tech, it’s so hard to win, with so much competition, so many people watching, and with stakes are so high, that victors inside the industry don’t feel that it’s safe to put down their swords. But if they want to cement their position, it’s something they need to learn. Understanding the distinction between a good old fashioned fight (against an external competitor) versus a political battle (against an existing power structure, or some other group that isn’t a competitor) — and how you need to behave differently in each — is going to become even more important as tech broadens its impact, and goes from fighting tech-on-tech battles (think Apple v Microsoft), to tech-on-world battles (think Uber v taxis).
Going back to Augustus, he was so sensitive to this that, in victory, he offered to give up his power. Contrast this with the Facebook reaction when Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, contacted Facebook to discuss Russian interference (“the initial reaction was completely dismissive”); or Zuckerberg’s reactions to fake news in the aftermath of the US 2016 Presidential Election (he thought it was “pretty crazy”). Put aside whether you think he’s right or not — it’s the immediate instinct that counts: this idea is threatening. Reflex: fight.
In doing so, Zuckerberg’s reactions seem much less like Augustus, and much more akin to Augustus’s uncle — Julius Caesar. Caesar, like Augustus, was incredibly successful militarily — he was the first Roman general to cross both the Channel and the Rhine. But unlike Augustus, Caesar approached consolidating power — winning the peace — the same way he approach winning wars. He just went straight for it, and declared himself “dictator in perpetuity”.
Of course, that perpetuity didn’t last very long.
I think that is the ultimate lesson here: winning the war is only half the battle. It is ultimately meaningless if you cannot win the peace. Augustus was very aware of the bloody fate of his uncle, and that’s a big part of why he approached things so differently.
There’s a number of leaders in tech who, one way or another, are going to have to learn that same lesson.
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