4 min read

Warm Take: assumptions and consequences

"...Stoking the star maker machinery/Behind the popular song..."
Acropolis, golden and rust colored stone against a grey cloudy sky, showing the cables that are propping up the structure
Athens Acropolis, by Karl Baron, CC BY2.0

You've been there. In line with a friend, who always kvetches about how ineffecient things are. There's always that person who has the answer. They could do this, and do it better. Better than the boss, the government, the store manager at Target, the business media.

Yikes, is that last person, well, me? Not really. I value the business media as whistleblowers, analysts, documentarians, historians, watchdogs.

I start to kvetch when the business and tech media act a platform for celebrity. This is partly on us. I mean, we're reading this stuff.

Fortune magazine covers: Elizabeth Holmes in 2014; Sam Bankman Fried in 2022
What a difference 8 years makes? Um, nevermind.

Christopher Mims’ “Twilight of the Tech Gods,” caught my eye in The Wall Street Journal. Mims cites a few recent events to support his assertion that “…we should lay to rest the myth that those who are best at articulating grand visions also possess the kind of universal competence required to create companies of lasting value.”

I mean, yes.

Photo of WSJ illustration: Zuck, Elon and SBF as a triptych, like statues of greek gods
Aren't the gods rumored to be kind of petty, vengeful, greedy, and proud?

Mims cites a “myth of extreme competence” attributed to these “tech gods.” Also, Sam Bankman-Fried’s “charm,” and Elon’s “aura of limitless acumen.” Investors made errors because money was cheap, and their due diligence was limited. And, for a time it was easy to profitably flip some investments.

(Fallen tech goddess Elizabeth Holmes does not come up in the article. Regulation takes a few shots, lol WSJ.)

I have mistakenly believed in people and organizations, partly because they're associated with people I've considered trustworthy. And I’ve talked to many who’ve joined what turned out to be crappy startups; they had done the same. Maybe partly because they read about founders. You know, in the business press. Or because they knew the investors, either in reality or by reputation. We're all human.

And yet I'm kind of stymied by the assumption of competence for objectively inexperienced leaders. All I can figure is that many, many, senior people in established organizations had to disconnect from their own experience and intuition before supporting investment in ventures run by unproven founders. Or deciding to feature them on magazine covers.

This matters as more than gossip, or the inevitable dawn of a Sam Bankman-Fried Cinematic Universe. In the case of FTX/Alameda, some of SBF's early co-workers reportedly left, essentially because they didn't think he was competent.

When we think we can do better than someone in our own organization's leadership, sometimes we're not just haters: we may be right.

When you think you're seeing a red flag at work, who in your brain trust can give you a credible reality check?

Back issues

Newer readers be interested in earlier issues of On Management on Competence (February, 2022,) and Platforms (October, 2020.)

tl;dr – someone who is smart, good at raising money, and/or able to generate PR, may not have any management skill whatsoever.

Thank you for reading my newsletter, and many thanks to Supporters. And welcome to new readers. Please do send questions, suggestions, criticism and reading recommendations that I can share in an upcoming newsletter.

Despite Elon's "aura of limitless acumen," I've mostly suspended my activity on Twitter. I miss talking with people there. Many holiday thanks, particularly, to friends of the newsletter I believe I first met on Twitter, Jennifer and Sophie. They spurred me to make a fruitcake that's been aging in the upper recesses of the refrigerator since this time last year. (I sampled some the other day, and lived to tell the tale.)

Today's Warm Take was written mostly during my Sunday early morning coffee, interrupted to help my sister gather signatures to get on the ballot for the local library board elections, and completed while defrosting my feet because we were outdoors in Chicagoland, and it was around 35F!  There may be typos, and I will endeavor to fix them later, on the Internet.

May you and your loved ones be safe, healthy, and free,

Anne Libby

Showing my work


I don't want to watch anything else in the EHU