Malcolm Gladwell: ‘The Greatest Entrepreneurs Are Amoral’

June 9, 2012

1:41 pm

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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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.