Until a few years ago, when corporate communications departments caught on, not long after a calamity the top person would be rightfully criticised and sometimes lose their job or bonus.
Alas, in recent years there’s been a growing trend of leaders “taking full responsibility for their errors” in carefully crafted press releases or teary interviews, sucking in gullible media who praise their willingness to own up. Taking responsibility is especially masterful as it never involves taking any actual responsibility.
No one takes responsibility better for his errors than the founder of Facebook, the now vastly poorer but still excruciatingly wealthy Mark Zuckerberg. (Zuck’s wealth has dropped by US$100 billion this year.) Zuckerberg has emperor-like control over Facebook by virtue of his control of its voting shares (Facebook has a dual-class voting structure whereby pleb shareholders have no voting power) and is a big fan of “taking responsibility”. He did it back in 2018 after the Cambridge Analytica scandal sent Facebook on its eventual doom loop.
Back then Zuck remorsefully told Congress: “It’s clear now we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well … That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy. We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook. I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.”
After that heartfelt apology, Zuckerberg did nothing to change anything as Facebook board members continued to resign faster than Elon Musk has thought bubbles. A few years later, Zuckerberg is destroying US$10 billion a year on his bizarre metaverse, a second-rate version of The Sims that even Elizabeth Holmes would have realised is a disaster.
The metaverse debacle, coupled with Apple’s privacy changes destroying Facebook’s ability to provide returns for advertisers, led to Facebook firing 11,000 people last week. Zuck again took responsibility, but like last time won’t be giving up his total domination over Facebook, nor it appears, is yet scaling back his metaverse insanity.
Arguably the world’s most inept CEO, Jack Dorsey, who has managed to destroy two companies (Twitter and Block), did similar things days earlier. After Musk’s Twitter rampage, where he terminated half of the 7000 staff, Dorsey conceded: “I own the responsibility for why everyone is in this situation: I grew the company size too quickly. I apologise for that.”
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We await Dorsey’s apology for undertaking one of the worst acquisitions of all time, paying US$17 billion to buy Afterpay, which after losing more money last quarter and seeing gross profit shrink is probably worth zero less than a year later. Like Zuck, Dorsey doesn’t appear to be in a hurry to resign as CEO of Block.
Then there’s the co-founder and CEO of share trading app and teen killer Robinhood, Vlad Tenev. After cutting more than 1000 jobs, Tenev admitted that “in this new environment, we are operating with more staffing than appropriate. As CEO, I approved and took responsibility for our ambitious staffing trajectory — This is on me.”
Tenev, of course, didn’t resign or even take a pay cut after his mea culpa, but then again he didn’t quit after causing a young user to suicide after Robinhood falsely told him he had lost hundreds of thousands of dollars and had no customer service team to help, so we probably shouldn’t expect too much.
With its share price down more than 80% and active users slumping, it is likely investors’ anger rather than the tragic death of an innocent 19-year-old will lead to Tenev quitting.
This week the world’s biggest Ponzi scheme operator since Bernie Madoff, FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried, also offered an apology, tweeting: “I’m sorry. That’s the biggest thing. I fucked up, and should have done better.” SBF’s gullible customers who will almost certainly lose more than US$10 billion are probably not overly content with the apology. (Ironically, Bankman-Fried had stepped in to help Robinhood a few months earlier. Who says there’s no honour among thieves?)
But it’s not just tech’s most mendacious characters who use the heartfelt apology to cleanse their negligence. The good guys do as well. Witness Shopify founder and CEO Tobi Lutke who conceded in a blog post (after sacking more than 10,000 people): “Placing this bet was my call to make and I got this wrong. Now, we have to adjust. As a consequence, we have to say goodbye to some of you today and I’m deeply sorry for that.”
Meanwhile, the sorry, not sorry trend has extended to politicians, with cunning Victorian Premier Dan Andrews effortlessly swatting away yet another corruption scandal in July: “The report tabled today shows [it] is absolutely disgraceful behaviour… behaviour that does not meet my expectations or the expectations of hard-working members of the Victorian committee … As leader of the party and leader of our state I take full responsibility for that conduct.”
Andrews naturally didn’t resign and is the favourite to win his third straight Victorian election on November 26.
CEOs and politicians have quickly learnt the best way to avoid responsibility is to pretend to take responsibility and continue as if nothing ever happened, blissfully enabled by a news cycle that barely lasts 48 hours.
This article was first published by Crikey.