What can we learn from the founder fable?

Donald Trump and Elon Musk have built personality cults around themselves, but most people who get to the top do so by studying and sheer hard work

Donald Trump and Elon Musk have built personality cults around themselves, but most people who get to the top do so by studying and sheer hard work

Mankind has loved stories ever since they could be shared. This is no different in the world of business, where myths are made alongside millions. More often than not these stories start with some founder’s pre-graduation exit from business school, university or even high school, spurred on by their infallible genius and game-changing idea.

But these reductive stories of brilliance in the business world enable people such as Elon Musk and Donald Trump to build personality cults around themselves. There are certainly plenty of incredibly intelligent people throughout the business world, but few have stories as appealing as these — and the vast majority of them do in fact have degrees. So where did this myth of exceptionalism come from, and why are we allowing it to ruin our working lives?

Anyone who’s worked in an office in the 21st Century is likely to have suffered through the arrogant behaviour of some colleague who believes they are better than others, perhaps because they taught themselves to code or had some award bestowed upon them.

In the book Valley of Genius by Adam Fisher, fascinating insights into the world of Silicon Valley at pivotal moments in its history are provided in first-hand accounts from founders. “Young people are just smarter,” Mark Zuckerberg is quoted as saying, to be countered by Ruchi Sanghvi, the first female engineer hired by Facebook: “We definitely had tons of energy and we could do it, but we weren’t necessarily the most efficient team by any means whatsoever. It was definitely frustrating for senior leadership, because a lot of the conversations happened at night when they weren’t around, and the next morning they would come in to all of these changes that happened at night. But it was fun when we did it.”

Selfish behaviour and simplified notions are reinforced by what our culture touts as a success: mostly young white men, who’ve accumulated a massive amount of money and an unstable myth alongside it. For instance: Jeff Bezos went from selling books to running a business worth billions in its own right. Yet, what about the Amazon chief executive’s history is aspirational outside of his wealth? His consistent mistreatment of workers? His refusal to pay his debt to society in the form of a fair and equitable tax? Or perhaps the millions of small businesses he closed across the world?

The grim realities that hide behind these fortunes are never part of their fairytale appearance. Instead, we are asked to believe that it was conjured from thin air, using only the force of the founder’s ingenuity and unbridled genius. This myth is deeply damaging to our business students, who should not be looking to emulate these men but instead learn from their mistakes.

Formal education tends to counteract these egotistic impulses, forcing students to develop communicative and collaborative skills inside the classroom and among their peers. Even at graduate level, students are under close supervision from their professors, allowing them to interact with figures who are clearly more knowledgeable. Simply said, the MBA remains as a means through which graduates can not only better understand the business world, but also how to do better business themselves.