Partying with Instagram models on Pablo Escobar's private island in the Bahamas while listening to Blink 182. What could possibly go wrong?
A whole lot as it turns out. In two recently released and competing documentaries from Netflix and Hulu, the abject disaster that was Fyre Festival was laid out in all its infamy. Doomed from the beginning due to the organizers being completely out of their depth, the founders Billy McFarland and Ja Rule now find themselves respectively navigating six years in jail and a series of lawsuits.
Yet, if you can put the egregious acts of fraud and deception to one side (for which Billy McFarland should be held completely accountable for) there were three aspects of his leadership that I've seen in hundreds of entrepreneurs. In fact, they have long been mythologized by the tech and business media as superhuman. In each case, the line between a genius entrepreneur and failed sociopath is blurred only by the success or failure of their latest initiative, a mere coin toss.
1. Creating a Reality Distortion Field
Jobs, Musk, Ford even Bezos to a certain extent, all leaders who have been known to create a 'reality-distortion field' around them. They create their own version of a future state they're trying to build and rally the troops to achieve that vision through a mix of charisma, charm, hyperbole, and threat.
McFarland was no different. Right up to the very end I think he genuinely believed he could pull off his vision if he only just kept pushing.
Resilience as an Entrepreneur is hugely important in getting any new initiative off the ground but at some point, you have to be able to read the signs when it's time to delay, pivot or even quit. Seeing a vision for how things could be shouldn't mean that you completely remove yourself from reality.
2. Focusing on solutions rather than problems
During the Netflix documentary, one of the Fyre employees who attempted to highlight the seriousness of the issues facing the festival was repeatedly told that 'this is a solutions-focused organization, not a problem-focused one.' This belief that if you concentrate on solving each crisis in front of you one-by-one you'll eventually get there can power you to do great things but McFarland and the rest of the leaders at Fyre refused to listen to any viewpoint other than 'we can fix this'.
As a leader, it's important to build a team that will challenge or question your assumptions. Surrounding yourself with sycophants and 'yes men' will only lead to disaster. As you look at the team around you, are there people who genuinely offer dissenting views for the greater good of the organization?
3. Stealing victory from the jaws of defeat
When Jobs came back to Apple, they were weeks away from bankruptcy. A renewed focus and a few brave moves pushed them toward the behemoth they are today. On the occasion that Tesla has met its production goals, it's been down to heroic acts and pushing to exhaustion. The team at Fyre believed they could also snatch victory from the jaws of defeat right up until attendees started arriving with no place to stay.
Most successful organizations have stories and fables of derring-do when someone, or some team or the company as a whole stared down defeat and turned it into a raving success. As a leader, however, you have to balance this with the reality that heroism isn't scalable. If you're constantly lurching from crisis to crisis as McFarland was, you'll never get to the point of building a long term, successful company.