When Employees Question Titans — Rockefeller and Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg’s response to whether fake news on Facebook affected the election was that it was “a pretty crazy idea”. A lot of people are disturbed by this response. Inside Facebook, “renegade” employees are beginning the fight to stop the spread of fake news.

Another titan of business — John D. Rockefeller — faced not dissimilar concern from an employee in 1887 as his monopoly on the oil business was booming and the public began to take notice. From Ron Chernow’s biography:

Perhaps the most extraordinary act of contrition in Standard history came in an eloquent appeal to Rockefeller written by William G. Warden on May 24, 1887. One of the trust’s most senior figures, Warden sent Rockefeller a haunting letter regretting the revulsion that the firm inspired in the popular imagination:

“We have met with a success unparalleled in commercial history, our name is known all over the world, and our public character is not one to be envied. We are quoted as the representative of all that is evil, hard hearted, oppressive, cruel (we think unjustly), but men look askance at us, we are pointed at with contempt, and while some good men flatter us, it’s only for our money and we scorn them for it and it leads to a further hardness of heart. This is not pleasant to write, for I had longed for an honored position in commercial life. None of us would choose such a reputation; we all desire a place in the good will, honor & affection of honorable men.”

After advancing a profit-sharing plan that might assuage the hostility of the oil producers, Warden urged Rockefeller to ponder his letter:

“Don’t put this down or throw it to one side, think over it, talk with Mrs. Rockefeller about it — She is the salt of the earth. How happy she would be to see a change in public opinion & see her husband honored & blessed. May he who’s [sic] wisdom alone can put it in our hearts to love our fellow men, guide and direct you at this time.… The whole world will rejoice to see such an effort made for the people, the working people.”

The employees who question the opinion of their superiors should be celebrated. I’ve never run a 300+ billion dollar company, but I imagine that it’s easy to accidentally surround yourself with sycophants only too eager to please.

Rockefeller was a business genius, but one has to think his accomplishments may have been greater without his desire to create a crushing monopoly. Rockefeller’s approach to criticism is summed up in this quote of his:

“We have gone upon the principle it were better to attend to our business and pay no attention to the newspapers, with the idea that if we were right they could not permanently injure us, and if we were wrong all their comments, though favorable, would not make it right.”

This attitude misses the point that if the criticism was right, there is an opportunity for change.

Mark Zuckerberg is not John Rockefeller, and he seems like a genuinely open-minded and compassionate business leader. I’m sure he’ll make the right decision, and not reply to criticism with the same attitude Rockefeller did.

And how did Rockefeller respond to this brave, thoughtful letter? About to sail to Europe with his family, he employed his departure as an excuse to send a short, platitudinous reply: “I have not been able to write you sooner,” he wrote the following week, “nor to give a careful consideration but be assured its content will not escape me.” To cool off a tense situation with a bland note was vintage Rockefeller, and there is no evidence that he ever again communicated with Warden on the subject.


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