Must You Be Ruthless in Order to Succeed?

by Dan Blank on March 16, 2011

I watched the movie The Social Network again the other night, and found myself considering Facebook’s success. As the movie depicts it, there was a certain amount of ruthlessness involved to ensure it succeeded.

At first, many considered the movie to be character assassination, targeted at Mark Zuckerberg. But then I heard feedback that many people felt that the movie portrayed him as a role model. That the lesson was: in order to succeed on the scale of Facebook, that you need to have true vision, be dedicated, and protect it at all costs. That Mark’s actions as portrayed in the movie were a necessary step in order to achieve greatness.

I began thinking of other companies’ stories of success; that stories of ruthlessness were a part of the Microsoft and Apple legends. Product ideas were stolen and competitors were aggressively nudged out of the marketplace.

Wandering the streets of New York City yesterday, I thought about all of this. Is New York City ruthless? It has certainly been described as a tough city, and as the song goes, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.

I began observing the people I passed on the streets. These were not ruthless people. At least, not all of them! They were an incredible mix of different people, all living their lives. They were making a conscious choice to live in a city that is expensive, crowded, and affords little personal space. And yet, many were doing it with grace. Oftentimes, I get inspired by those I pass on the streets in New York City. That they are builders and creators.

As I build my own business at We Grow Media, I am considering these things. And I can’t help but feel that ruthlessness is the easy way out, and too easily justified. That a truly visionary business, a truly confident business succeeds because it chooses to do right by the communities it serves, and those whole play a part of its success. That the story of a company represents the values of a company. Not what they SAY their values are, but what they actually do.

Any action can be justified as being “necessary” for a greater purpose. Most of the worst actions in the history of the world have been justified in exactly this way.

I was on Jane Friedman’s website last night, and she shared this quote:

“It takes guts to be gentle and kind.”

This is taken by a song from The Smiths. And I loved the quote – that the brave are not always the ones who lash out at others, they are more likely those who are patient enough to use their power sparingly.

As individuals and businesses experience the trials and tribulations of growth, I feel as though this is ideal to achieve. That being ruthless is the easy way out, and one the usurps the real value that is being created. That being kind takes far more bravery, and builds a far more valuable business.

Maybe this is why I will never be Mark Zuckerberg, and head a company worth billions of dollars. But I’m okay with that.

  • Anonymous

    I love this, Dan. Very well said. Long live positive networking and a sense of community.

  • Anonymous

    I love this, Dan. Very well said. Long live positive networking and a sense of community.

  • http://www.danblank.com Anonymous

    Thanks Jeanne!

  • http://www.janefriedman.com Jane Friedman

    :)

  • http://www.danblank.com Anonymous

    Thanks Jane!

  • http://twitter.com/ianchia Ian Chia

    Hi Dan,nnI think you’ve highlighted two important things in this post. Very insightful.nnThe ones who “reinvent” our world are builders. And being a builder means constructing things of value, not only considering aspects of immediate gain, but building things worth leaving behind. Your posts about legacy resonate with all of that.nnUmair Haque has a great post called the Builder’s Manifesto on HRB that speaks to me on those lines:nhttp://blogs.hbr.org/haque/2009/12/the_builders_manifesto.htmlnnSo much deep thinking in his article. One particular point relating to ruthlessness is the way he highlights the difference between the 20thC industrial capitalist ways of doing things, as a social norm, and the new 21stC (and very old pre 20thC) of doing things:nn—-nThe Boss says, “Get there on time;” the Leader gets there ahead of time. The Builder makes sure “getting there” matters.n—-nnWe can’t get to “there” without others. “We” would be less without “you”. IMHO, the super-super-connectedness of today (eg. Japan/GFC/Iceland-volcano/China’s economy/Egypt/US education crisis etc.) are all stark reminders that ruthlessness will not move us forward. We all need to be builders.nn”Getting there matters.” … u201cIt takes guts to be gentle and kind.u201dnnThank you Dan and Jane.nnBest,nn- Iann

  • http://www.danblank.com Anonymous

    Wow – thank you Ian!

  • http://twitter.com/ianchia Ian Chia

    Thank you for taking the time to write the post! :D I’m just a commentator.nnComing from a combined tech/edu/publishing view and being an artist myself, I see a lot of the “ruthlessness” of that world forgetting to consider the most obvious aspects of one of their leaders.nnSteve Jobs pointed it out on the launch of iPad 1, and again, emphasised it at the end of his keynote for iPad 2′s launch:nn”… It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities that yields the results that makes our hearts sing…”nnRuthlessness often comes from a way of thinking of reductionism and scarcity. Ruthless capitalism thinks of numbers, not people. The “theatre of war” talks about collateral damage. I believe the only way to truly succeed, to “win”, is to embrace our whole and believe in “building” abundance.nnAll the best,nn- Ian

  • Hectorcaceres04

    First sorry for my english, im not a native speaker… and sorry for the late response, just found this post….nnMy opinion, yes, you have to be ruthless to survive/succeed/etc.u00a0nBelieve me, i am a walking example of what lack of ruthlessness can do to a person. Its crush or be crushed, im getting the crushed part.u00a0nnBehind every majoru00a0corporation theres some level of ruthlessness. the problem is that we are too busy praising them that we don’t bother to ask what they did to achieve that level of success. Google? they stole their business model(adwords) from Bill Gross, without it Google would be a nice piece of codeu00a0buriedu00a0somewhere in Larry page’s hard disk, Oracle? read “the difference between god and larry ellison”, Microsoft and IBM? … barbaric ruthlessness… they would make Genghis Khan and Vlad “the impaler” cry tears of joy.nnWhy nice people get crushed? simple, ITS THE FAULT OF THE PARENTS AND THE SCHOOL… they try so hard(and fail) to make people the model citizen that they forget to teach fundamental things like survival of the fittest or how to be a hipercompetitive bastard who clubs friends and stops at nothing when wants something. So they end up sending sheeps to the slaughterhouse.nnHow you succeed?nn1 – Pick a domain(Computer science, business, etc).nn2 – Become a master within that domain, but a master to the point that you understand the in and outs of that domain.nn3 – Solve hard problems within a subdomain of the domain you picked. u00a0Tricky part here, you must pick a subdomain/problem combination where is zero to low competition. Theres a big difference between trying to enter in the web browser business 12 years ago when all you had was crappy internet explorer to compete vs trying it now, when you have mozilla, chrome, opera, etc waiting.u00a0nn4 – Crush competitors. another tricky part, but if the problem you picked is enough hard, you will get advantage for being the first to come with the solution for that problem, example:u00a0Larry Ellison knew that some day business would want to make more complex question to the databases, so he and some friends worked on the first RDBMS system… 4 years later IBM counters with their own RDMS, too late, Oracle had too much market won…nn4.a – BE BRUTAL, BE BRUTAL, crush your competitors with primitive brutality, set an example for future competitors,u00a0resistanceu00a0won’t be tolerated. Its better to be feared than loved.nn5 – Build your business model/empire within that domain.nn6 – crush more competitors.nn7 – expand via buying any company that comes with something good.nnAs you may have noticed, there is no time to play Barney… survival of fittest my friend, survival of the fittest… its not survival of the nicest.

  • Jeffanthony70

    A beautiful, poignant article. nAs I look to change careers and endeavour to be successful, I steer away from the idea of being ruthless to attain that position of power to enact positive change. I don’t want it if it hurts someone else or robs them of their dignity, (and mine). nnThis helps me feel more secure in my strategy of sticking with my vision and one day, I will be successful. nnThank you for this.

  • http://www.wegrowmedia.com/ Dan Blank

    Very well put, thank you.

  • Evan

    Really Dan!!!  Very eloquently put but no help to an ambitious business person. Your whole argument is neutralized in the last paragraph. Speaking as a person weighing the  pros and cons of different business and interpersonal styles. I ask you this. How can you write a whole article talking about the issue of Kindness Vs Ruthlessness and then in the last paragraph, just take it all back by saying?

    “That being ruthless is the easy way out.” - - “Maybe this is why I will never be Mark Zuckerberg, and head a company worth billions of dollars. But I’m okay with that. ” What I have found is that rarely if ever is selflessness, compassion and generosity remembered or even rewarded in business.  I therefore ask the question again that your raise for this article.  Must you be ruthless to SUCCEED in business? One example of a success full business would be good. And please dont cop out of the discussion by exploring the definition of the word success, I mean $ bottom line & productivity of employees.

  • http://www.wegrowmedia.com/ Dan Blank

    Evan,
    Another translation of the last paragraph is: “I may not run a billion dollar company one day, but I may run a 5mm dollar company.” That speed and scale may not lower the ceiling in a way that is significant. 
    Thanks.
    -Dan

  • Eduard Cherechesiu

    I think that ruthlessness is cultivated by the social / natural system that people live in. Human beings respond to the environment. We can all agree that humans are quite capable to adapt;) A system that has a premise like differential advantage (competition) cultivates this ”ruthlessness” that you describe. A lion cannot be described as ruthless in relationship to it’s pray. Our so called ”civilized” society (which it is not, at the moment at least) has a lot more in common to the relationship between pray and hunter. A truly civilized society which does not need manipulation (politics reliogn of any kind) only information has no basis for ruthlessness. The economic system that we abide is obsolete and describes a system of natural selection (phasing out the poor, economically unsuccessful) while disregarding a human being’s capacity to evolve intellectually to change is values. Ruthlessness Greed are not de facto traits of people only effects of how we still live on planet earth. Orthodox Communist Russians conscripted into the Red Army were what we call decent people, same as ”Freedom” Loving GIs at Normandy and Catholic Wehrmacht soldiers in the Ardennes. All these groups killed their ”Enemy” ruthlessly. All of them were sons. brothers, fathers neighbors, that under less violent circumstances would not have done those things. The point is, question your values, today’s world is a bloody pyramid and you know what they say… it’s lonely at the top.

  • danny randolph

    hey hector i finally found you, it is me danny, please pass me some way to contact you, need to talk, it is something important.

    say hi to drzucchini and Wallace from me.

  • hectorcaceres04

    oh dummy haven’t seen you seen since the graduation day, back at 2004, are you still in spain?

    contact me at: hector.raul.caceres04@gmail.com or look for “Hector Raul Caceres” in social networks or look for “hectorcaceres04″ thats my nickname in other sites such as youtube.com and etc.

    Really enjoyed hearing from you, you are getting old, you should be around 35 years old?, two years older than me.

    cheers man.

  • Hectorcaceres04

    oh forgot to tell you.

    drzucchini was banned from the forum, so you will have to use his real name from now, LOL.

    bye.

  • hectorcaceres04

    Hi, my name is Hector Raul Caceres, Im from spain, again sorry for my english.

    I used to be a frequent visitor of this site: what happened? why all of a sudden it stopped posting. The last post here was nearly 2 years ago.

    Please post more interesting articles! :)

  • http://www.wegrowmedia.com/ Dan Blank

    I blog over at http://WeGrowMedia.com now.
    Thanks!
    -Dan

  • Gunther Boccius

    Becoming Ruthless is my third novel, coming out in 2014. It incorporates the values you describe. My second, The Fifth Device, examines ruthlessness in detail. Check it out. Zuckerberg is not a hero.

  • William Graham

    Thank you. Very thoughtful.

  • http://www.wegrowmedia.com/ Dan Blank

    Thanks.

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