It's lonely at the top. But it's loneliest when you have to admit you've failed

Witness Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google from 2001 to 2011, and executive chairman of Google and then Alphabet until last year.

A lot of good things happened during those years. But there's a big, glaring failure that's become especially apparent lately: Google's inability to make a go of it in social media.

Schmidt was asked about that failure recently, and his answer was one for the ages--one that showed true leadership, and that honestly stopped me in my tracks when I saw it. The first eight words are probably the most important.

"I need to take responsibility for that failure," he said. "There were plenty of things that went unwell, but I think that in my CEO-ship, that was probably the one that I missed the biggest."

Here's the history, the context, and why Schmidt's answer is so crucial.

A brief history of social media at Google

Go back to 2011. Google was pouring money and time into its most recent social media foray, Google+, the silver bullet that was supposedly going to destroy Facebook.

In fact, hours after it was announced, Mark Zuckerberg called an all-hands meeting to figure out how Facebook would handle this "existential threat." (His words.) But in truth, Google+ had massive problems from the start.

It never quite had features or UX as good as Facebook's. Moreover, Google tried to "brute force" its way to a massive user base, by basically creating accounts for millions of people who had signed up for and were using other Google services. Result: extremely poor user engagement.

At the exact same time, a team of two people with a total of $500,000 investment were launching the company that would become Instagram.

You know how this ends. Instagram made its founders into billionaires; Google+ announced last month that it's shutting down--"sunsetting," in corporatespeak--by next year.

"The Google cultural DNA"

With that background, I can't imagine how you'd interview Schmidt today and not ask about this big failure during his time there.

On his podcast with Schmidt, economist Tyler Cowen put it this way: "What was it that was missing in the Google cultural DNA that made it hard to succeed with social networks?"

(Hmmm. The "cultural DNA?")

Fortunately, Schmidt didn't take the easy way out. Here's his full answer:

Well, first place, I need to take responsibility for that failure. There were plenty of things that went unwell, but I think that in my CEO-ship, that was probably the one that I missed the biggest.

And my answer is because we didn't use it, that we were of the age where we were more comfortable with telephones and email and that kind of stuff, and this was emerging. And there really was a slightly younger generation that was really driving it. The stuff was invented well past when I was in college.

And because we didn't collectively use it, I suspect we didn't fully understand how to do it. I think we've remedied this. For example, today we have quite a powerful social network embedded inside of YouTube, but I think it would be fair to say that the rise of Facebook, etcetera, occurred on my watch.

Unpack this, and I think it's very powerful for at least three reasons.

  • He takes responsibility, full stop. He uses the first person singular: "the one that I missed."
  • He cops to an unflattering explanation. He failed in part because he was simply too old to understand.
  • Finally, he praises the other people around him--talking about the progress Google has made since then, including apparently after Schmidt has moved on.

Leaders take responsibility

Sure, you can say that this admission comes too late. Schmidt's leadership at Google and Alphabet is in the history books. He's made his money and his mark. He has nothing to lose.

But in a way that almost makes this more poignant.

The job of being a leader never really ends, and a true leader does two things:

  • He or she takes action and actually leads.
  • And when things don't go well, he or she takes responsibility for the failure.

That second truth is a hard one. It's painful. It's one that a lot of so-called leaders never really embrace.

Sometimes in the short run, it works out well for them. But Schmidt isn't playing a short-term game here. He has no reason to.

Instead, he's showing long-term leadership. No matter what his eventual legacy turns out to be, words and actions like this will reflect well on him. It's an excellent lesson for any leader to learn.