NOTE: Names have been changed out of respect for “Bob’s” privacy
Most people would expect the billionaire owner of an NBA team to be kind of a jerk.
While I had spoken to Bob on the phone some months before and he seemed like a nice guy, I was still taken aback by the email that popped up in my inbox.
“Hi Francisco, I’ll be in L.A. next week and would love to get together. I’ll have a car and can drive to you if that’s easier for you.”
I thought back to all the random jokers who expected me to drive in from the suburbs or showed up late for appointments and could scarcely believe that this master of the universe was offering to drive out to meet me.
That was last September and I’ve spent the past eight months thinking about how Bob treated me, how he treated the waiter at breakfast, and how modest and down to earth he was.
I thought about what a stark contrast he was to so many of the self promoters that pass for heroes in the tech community.
Have we just been fooled by charlatans skilled at wrapping themselves in disguises of character, or does the fault lie with our own choices of who and what we believe worthy of respect?
As much as I’d like to point fingers at those that I consider imposters, I believe the fault lies in our own failure to discern actual strength of character from those who are simply skilled at self-presentation.
I once gave a talk at Harvard Business School where I asked the students, “Why are you friends with the people you’re friends with? Is it because they’re rich?” They all shook their heads “no.”
I’d like to think that their answer applies to all of us; and if I’m right, why then do we choose our friends based on qualities other than wealth while we seem to choose our heroes based almost entirely on wealth?
Shouldn’t our heroes be held to at least the same standards as our friends when it comes to character? Or has money become the great cleanser that can wash away transgressions of selfishness and vanity?
As much as I think it’s wrong to idolize money alone, I suppose it’s better than blindly looking up to inexplicable traits of popularity.
Just because someone is good at performing on stage at conferences or blogging about the secret to working less, being thinner, or acting bolder, doesn’t mean they are deserving of our respect. Who are they and what have they really accomplished beneath the veneer of claimed expertise?
There’s a scene at the beginning of Schindler’s List when the main character, Oskar, is still a proud Nazi seeking only to profit from the plight of the Jews. He says, “I’ll do what I’m good at, not the work! Not the work! The presentation.”
Today it seems as though “the presentation” is the only thing that matters and that popularity for the sake of popularity is enough to make you a person of honor.
Some of you are probably wondering what this has to do with technology or entrepreneurship. For better or for worse, much of the nation and the world look to the technology community as a beacon of the future. Unlike other industries such as oil, tech is seen as relatively pure and uncorrupt. Many feel we hold the keys to economic revival.
It isn’t unreasonable to reject these labels since none of us actually asked to bear such a heavy cross. But if we are to lead the way, I believe what and who we admire set the path for what we do. If we continue to worship at the altar of personality over character, then we should also face the truth that any admiration of the tech world as being somehow better is nothing more than a case of the blind leading the blind.
Perhaps this post is unfair and I’m simply projecting my hopes for the technology community on to everyone. Perhaps I expect too much. I am, after all, only “in tech” because I believed this was the best place to find smart people. Perhaps I was wrong.
Or, as entrepreneurs, perhaps we should hold our heroes to higher standards of character.
Francisco Dao is the founder of 50Kings, a private community for technology and media innovators. He is a former leadership columnist for Inc.com, a lifelong entrepreneur, author and former stand-up comic.
Top image courtesy of olly, Shutterstock