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Malcolm Gladwell: ‘The Greatest Entrepreneurs Are Amoral’


Malcolm Gladwell, best selling author of The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, was recently interviewed at Toronto Public Library’s Appel Salon.  The more than hour-long conversation touched upon a range of topics, including entrepreneurship.

When asked to explain his views on morality in entrepreneurship, Gladwell says that “the greatest entrepreneurs are amoral” and promptly clarifies not to confuse this with being immoral.  He gives the example of  L’Oréal’s founder, Eugene Schueller who was a documented Nazi collaborator during WWII.  Gladwell says, “The reason Schueller collaborated with Nazis…is not that he’s a Nazi- he’s not a Nazi – he’s never thought more than five minutes about politics.  He only cares about one thing, which is L’Oréal.  He says, ‘the only way I can keep this company going is by playing nice with the Nazi’s.  I’m going to play nice with the Nazi’s.'”  Gladwell continues:

“[Great entrepreneurs] are completely single minded and obsessively focused of the health of their enterprise.  That’s what makes them good at building businesses, but that’s what also makes them not worthy of this level of hagiography.”

Gladwell would go onto contrast this story to that of Oskar Schindler who used all of his profits and personal wealth to bribe the Nazis against taking his Jewish workers.  He adds that not only did Schindler “fail” at that business, but also at each venture he pursued after the war as well.  “This guy’s not an entrepreneur, he is a hero.  But he’s a hero because he’s a terrible businessman.”

At 9:42 of the interview, subject matter transitions to a pair of modern entrepreneurs, Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs.  Gladwell believes that in 50 years Gates will be looked at as a hero while Jobs will be forgotten. “I firmly believe that 50 years from now he [Gates] will be remembered for his charitable work. No one will even remember what Microsoft is, and all the great entrepreneurs of this era, people will have forgotten Steve Jobs. There will be statues of Gates across the third world and … there’s a reasonable shot … because of his money, we will cure malaria.”

At minute 16, Gladwell explains why he believes the concept of being first in business is vastly overrated, citing Facebook, Google, and many of Apple’s top products as examples.  He adds, “Wouldn’t you rather be second or third and see how the guy who went first did?”

If interested, watch the interview for yourself in the video below.

Also, what do you think, is Gladwell right?  Are great entrepreneurs amoral?  Weigh in at the bottom of the post.

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About the Author'

When Zach Davis isn't getting lost in the mountains, he is hustling from Boulder, CO as Tech Cocktail's Director of Marketing. He is the author of Appalachian Trials, a book chronicling the mindset necessary for thru-hiking all 2,181 miles of the Appalachian Trail, a feat he accomplished in 2011. Zach is a green tea enthusiast, die-hard Chicago sports fan, and avid concert-goer. Follow Zach on Twitter: @zrdavis.


13 Responses to “Malcolm Gladwell: ‘The Greatest Entrepreneurs Are Amoral’”


    Kira M Newman

    No, I don't think great entrepreneurs are amoral. To me, being a great entrepreneur includes not only building a great business but succeeding personally – being unconditionally proud of your work – and "playing nice" with Nazis or other questionable practices will/should undermine your personal pride.



    I don't necessarily disagree with his statement, although I think the times are changing this.

    If there's a conflict between choosing the moral action and doing what's best for the health of the enterprise, the most obsessive entrepreneurs will probably choose the latter option. This is why shoes are made in sweatshops by children, jobs are sent offshore, and tax payer money turns into lavish bonuses.

    That said, with information being so transparent (thank you Internet), the backlash against these amoral decisions will have a net negative reaction on the bottom line. So I guess it raises the question, is making the "moral" decision for business gain still an "amoral" decision. You could still make that argument.

  3. @FrankGruber

    I think many entrepreneurs do what they need to do to survive which sometimes pushes them to do things that they may not like doing. Micah Baldwin said it very well in his talk at our Startup Mixology Conference a few years ago (here is the video – when he said:

    "As an entrepreneur…
    At some point you have do horrible things.
    At some point failure enters the game."

    Many entrepreneurs do put business first, which might make them numb to moral judgements though social media has helped leveled the playing field. That said, more and more entrepreneurs are focusing on making sure social good is part of their business and culture.



    Malcolm makes an interesting point, but I think it comes down to how we define terms like "Great" and "Success" w.r.t. business. If his point is that all things being equal, entrepreneurs who don't consider morality will tend to make more money and have higher valued companies than those who do, it would make sense. But to completely dismiss the morality of actions of a company in our society from the equation when determining "Greatness" certainly misses one element. Is a person who earns more money than someone else by doing immoral things considered a "greater" person? We certainly consider morality when evaluating people, why not also use it when evaluating companies, and the entrepreneurs who start them?


    Andrea Fuentes

    Isn't Bill Gates an entrepreneur? He started with nothing and became a billionaire.. how is that not considered successful?

    I know Microsoft isn't cool and hip now, but Gates made it big, then became a philanthropist, no? I think Malcolm Gladwell misses the mark here.

    (and I love Apple products… ) Yes, I agree that many POWERFUL/WEALTHY political or business leaders throughout history have been amoral or immoral, whether they made a fortune through the African slave trade or cooperating with the Nazis, but there are other paths.



      he wasn't saying that Bill Gates is not an entrepreneur…he said that while his peer Steve Jobs was equally successful, Jobs will not likely be remembered as a hero, where Gates, with all of his philanthropy work, will be remembered for that. Few business leaders are remembered by history as great men, unless there is something they do to earn that in ways other than just getting richer than everyone else. Ford, for instance, is more remembered for inventing the assembly line, helping create unions, and paying his employees more than double what other manufacturers were so that more people would be able to buy his products, than he was for how many zeros were in his bank account.

  6. @Venntive

    Bill Gates is a very successful entrepreneur who built Microsoft on stolen ideas and never, as far as we know, only included philanthropy after years of lobbying by his father and wife and probably, Warren Buffett. I'd lay odds that the majority of hugely successful entrepreneurs have compromised along the way in the pursuit of success. For the most part, philanthropy enters the picture at a later date when they want to "leave a mark" and "be remembered" as a good person.



    "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

    Define great…vs Successful.

    A very successful Drug Lord is not necessarily a "Great Entrepreneur"…even though he may create a massively successful "business" that lasts for years and makes Billions.

    If your definition of "Great Entrepreneur" also includes a balance of WHY the company is in business and if it creates a better world…then "Great Entrepreneurs" are NOT amoral. Successful and Great are not necessarily the same.



    Also, many, many, many entrepreneurs RISK their own money…and severe financial hardship. Malcolm should not confuse the Google guys or any other entrepreneur that takes venture capital (or does not invest their own money) with the VAST majority of entrepreneurs who launch their companies using their own money.

    He's probably spending a wee bit too much time over-simplifying what the definition of an entrepreneur is…and where the majority of them actually come from compared to a few of the recent Tech successes. VC's and Angel investors only fund a small portion of businesses…it is NOT the norm.



    Eventually, entrepreneurs will be venerated for how they helped mankind, not their ability to make a ton of money. He used the contrast between legendary entrepreneurs




    Eventually, entrepreneurs will be venerated for how they helped mankind, not their ability to make a ton of money. He used the contrast between legendary entrepreneurs




    One person commented that entrepreneurs do what they have to in order to survive. There may be some situations where that is the case. But even those making a lot of money use this as an excuse. And I bet if some entrepreneurs believed that considering the impact of their actions was equally important to making profit, they could do things differently.



    Good effort by posting this popst.Malcolm makes an interesting point, but I think it comes down to how we define terms like “Great” and “Success” w.r.t. business. Well done
    rug vintage


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