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.

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