Leaders Falling from Grace … Into Disgrace

Sometimes it happens that leaders once revered are no longer. Think, for example, of General Electric’s erstwhile CEO, corporate superstar and superman, Jack Welch.

Similarly, it happens, though less often, that leaders once revered are abjured. Rejected, renounced, repudiated, and finally disgraced. This week it’s happening not once but twice – once yesterday, once today.

Yesterday the City Council of Charlottesville, VA voted to donate a once dominant statue of legendary Confederate General Robert E. Lee to an African American heritage center. The center had made plain its intention to melt down the bronze monument and transform it into an entirely new piece of public art under the name, “Swords into Plowshares.”

So much for Lee – a man once seen by legions as a leader to be greatly admired.

Today will be a different sort of drama. The CEO of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, will testify before a Senate Subcommittee on the impact of Instagram on children and teenagers. The problem for Instagram is that today’s hearing will be hard on the heels of revelations the company’s own researchers found its app was harmful to large numbers of users, especially teenage girls. Said one slide summarizing the findings, “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.” Said another, “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression.”

Instagram is owned by Facebook (Meta). For well over a decade Facebook has been led by two people: founder, chief executive officer, and chairman Mark Zuckerberg; and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.

It is Sandberg who is relevant to this post because it is Sandberg who positioned herself as a feminist icon. Her 2013 book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, was a mega bestseller, and the nonprofit organization she founded, “Leanin.org,” was, is, dedicated to offering women “ongoing inspiration and support.” Now, however, it turns out she, apparently knowingly, has been running a company that, to maximize profit, has done significant damage to teenage girls.

Facebook continues to play down the negative effects of social media on teens. It further continues to hide the results of its own research. How then can Sandberg reconcile such corporate posturing with her self-painted portrait of someone who provides women and, presumably, girls, “ongoing inspiration and support.” She can’t.

So much for Sandberg – a woman once seen by legions as a leader to be greatly admired.   

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