Reading for today: Founder Worship and the Enduring Great Man Myth

“The idea that particular individuals drive history has long been discredited. Yet it persists in the tech industry, obscuring some of the fundamental factors in innovation.”
— MIT Technology Review, “Tech’s Enduring Great Man Myth”

Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Tony Stark. These are not men. They are legends. They are superheroes. They are Founders.

MIT Technology Review has a great piece from 2015 about the myth that “great men” (or more accurately, “great people”) are responsible for progress. This myth is alive and well in tech perhaps more than any other area of the economy.

After so much time spent with investors, entrepreneurs, and many friends working in Silicon Valley over the past 10 years, I’ve come to think of this attitude as “founder worship.”

Founder worship is the idea that founders are somehow a superior form of human to lowly employees. They are brash, they are determined, they are brave, they are visionaries, they are innovators. They have known, lovable flaws we all accept.

I find this stereotype — because that’s exactly what it is —as ridiculous and unfair as every other stereotype. Just like any large group of people, founders are a diverse group.

But my larger beef with founder worship is the way is discounts the contributions of early employees and creates a culture of pressure to found rather than join.

Successful founders are team members. A founder without a great team is not successful. I’ll even go so far as to argue that sometimes, in today’s founder worshipping culture, it can be more brave to join someone else’s company than to start your own. Founders are one member of an early team.

If (or when?) I do start another company, I would love to give all my early employees cofounder status. A co-founding committee sounds more accurate to me than one or two founders.

In my own experience starting the Annika Linden Centre, Southeast Asia’s first incubator for impact, I attribute our sustained success to our early employees as much if not more than to our founding team. I am certain there were times when, as a founder, I was an anchor weighing down our company and our early employees kept us afloat, righting the situation with the tact and care it takes to tell your boss they are doing something wrong. MIT Technology Review describes key employees at SpaceX as “the steady hands that will forever be expected to stay in the shadows” behind Elon Musk. Amen to that.

The Founder is dead.

Long live the early employee.

“The growing good of the world is dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
-George Eliot, Middlemarch

Hat tip to legendary quote collecting titan Roland De Wolk.

Cross-posted at mitsloan.mit.edu.