He had recently read a blog post by venture capitalist Ben Horowitz, in which the author defined two kinds of CEOs: wartime and peacetime. Wartime CEO
He had recently read a blog post by venture capitalist Ben Horowitz, in which the author defined two kinds of CEOs: wartime and peacetime. Wartime CEOs are fending off existential threats and must be ruthless in confronting them. This made a big impression on Zuckerberg. Since the election, his company had been attacked by critics, regulators, and the press. In this climate, he told the group, consider him a wartime CEO.
He emphasized one shift in particular. Horowitz put this way: “Peacetime CEO works to minimize conflict … Wartime CEO neither indulges consensus building nor tolerates disagreements.” Zuckerberg told his management team that as a wartime CEO he was going to have to tell people what to do.
True, Zuckerberg always had made the final call. But now he seemed to be saying that he would act more expeditiously, even if it meant forgoing the lively conversation, in person and on email threads, that had preceded his decisions. Some in the room thought he was saying that they should shut up and obey his directives. Zuckerberg resists that characterization. “I basically said to people, this is the mode that I think we’re in,” he told me of the declaration. “We have to move quickly to make decisions without the process of bringing everyone along as much as you would typically expect or like. I believe that this is how it needs to be to make the progress that we need right now.”
I wondered whether he found the role of wartime CEO more stressful or more fun?
A Zuck silence. Sauron’s gaze.
“You’ve known me for a long time,” he finally said. “I don’t optimize for fun.”
Not long before the July 4 holiday in 2019, I met with Zuckerberg at his home. The person who sat across from me on the couch couldn’t have been more different from the 21-year-old I’d met 13 years before. He had sat with presidents and autocrats, been ripped apart by legislators, amassed a multibillion-dollar fortune, started a family, and was financing, through an enterprise led by his wife, an effort to cure all diseases by the end of the century. His company had done the unprecedented: bound almost a third of humanity in a single network. Now he was trying to mitigate the damage.
In another sense, though, he felt an urgency to maintain the optimism and creativity he had in 2006, when things fell easily to him and he could change the world by leaving photocopies of journal pages next to the computers of his developers and designers. He was determined not to let Facebook’s attempts to fix itself hamper its ambitions for even greater power.
We’d had several conversations over the course of the year. When I asked him about the company’s errors, he was candid about his personal failings. Maybe it was a mistake to distance himself from the policy issues that would cause Facebook so much trouble. Maybe in his competitive zeal to crush Twitter, he made the News Feed too susceptible to viral garbage. Maybe he didn’t pay enough attention to the things in Sandberg’s domain. The split of their duties made sense originally, as he sees it, but now he is determined to devote more energy to things like content moderation and policy.
But a worse sin, he believes, would have been timidity.
“I just think I take more chances, and that means I get more things wrong,” he told me. “So in retrospect, yeah, we have certainly made a bunch of mistakes in strategy, in execution. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re probably not living up to your potential, right? That’s how you grow.”
When we spoke in July, he conceded that some of those mistakes have had terrible consequences but insisted that you had to look beyond the present. “Some of the bad stuff is very bad, and people are understandably very upset about it—if you have nations trying to interfere in elections, if you have the Burmese military trying to spread hate to aid their genocide, how can this be a positive thing? But just as in the previous industrial revolution or other major changes in society that were very disruptive, it’s difficult to internalize that, as painful as some of these things are, the positive over the long term can still dramatically outweigh the negative. You handle the negative as well as you can.”
He added: “Through this whole thing I haven’t lost faith in that. I believe we are one part of the internet that’s part of a broader arc of history. But we do definitely have a responsibility to make sure we address these negative uses that we probably didn’t focus on enough until recently.”
He still believes that Facebook is doing good. “I couldn’t run this company and not do things that I thought were going to help push the world forward,” says the man who some think has done as much destruction to that world as anyone in business. Facebook may have to change, but Zuckerberg thinks it’s on the right path.
When it was time for me to leave, Zuckerberg walked me to the door. Earlier, I’d told him I had pages from the Book of Change he wrote in 2006, and standing on the top of the steps outside his house, he said it would be cool to see it now. I had a scan of it on my phone, and I opened the file and handed it to him.
Zuckerberg gazed at the cover page—with his name and address and the promise of a $1,000 reward to anyone locating it—and his face lit up. Yes, that’s my handwriting!