Every year, Mark Zuckerberg sets himself a personal challenge. He's been doing it for 10 years now, and his annual personal challenges have included such items as running a mile every day, visiting all 50 states, and learning Mandarin. This year is different. This year, Zuckerberg has set himself a new kind of personal challenge: to fix Facebook in the wake of revelations that the social network became a tool for Russians seeking to alter the course of the 2016 election, and more recent allegations by former Facebook executives that spending time on Facebook is really bad for you

As he explains in a Facebook post:

"The world feels anxious and divided, and Facebook has a lot of work to do -- whether it's protecting our community from abuse and hate, defending against interference by nation states, or making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent.

My personal challenge for 2018 is to focus on fixing these important issues. We won't prevent all mistakes or abuse, but we currently make too many errors enforcing our policies and preventing misuse of our tools. If we're successful this year then we'll end 2018 on a much better trajectory."

This may not exactly sound like a personal challenge, he adds, "but I think I'll learn more by focusing intensely on these issues than I would by doing something completely separate."

Maybe he would, but that's just not the point. I'm a big fan of personal challenges in general, and Zuckerberg's personal challenges in particular. But this one is wrong, wrong, wrong. 

Here's are just some of the terrible messages this choice sends:

1. It suggests that he can't have a personal life and run Facebook at the same time.

Or at least not in difficult times like these. But this is not the first time Facebook has faced a crisis, and fixing the particular set of problems facing the company at the moment requires a complex set of solutions that will probably take more than a year to implement.

Is Zuckerberg prepared to give up his personal life for more than a year? I think the answer to that question should be no, because he's also the father of a 2-year-old and a newborn. That's a pretty awful time to abdicate your parental duties and take up residence at the office, even if there are plenty of staffers at home to pick up the slack, if only because you stand to miss a lot of development. A parenting-related personal challenge might have made more sense.

2. It makes it seem like he wasn't really trying before now.

In a video, my Inc. colleague Emily Canal commented, "Looks like he's finally ready to do his job." I think he's been doing it all along, except while he was on paternity leave this past summer. But you can't blame her for the sentiment. Setting himself a personal challenge to make the huge and hugely influential company he runs the best that it can be does suggest that he hasn't been doing his best all along.

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3. It implies that Facebook is a one-man show.

Even when Steve Jobs ran Apple, and it was more like a cult of personality than a tech company, he relied on the brilliant talents around him. If Facebook can't thrive without Zuckerberg dropping everything else to concentrate on fixing it, that makes it seem like there's no one else there who can run a company of such size and importance. But of course, Zuckerberg does have some amazing talents to help him at Facebook as well, beginning with the formidable Sheryl Sandberg. The fact that he can't take step away from his job long enough to do his usual personal challenge this year makes it sound like he doesn't trust their judgment.

4. It sets a terrible example.

Zuckerberg is an icon. He's the prototypical college boy entrepreneur, and the creator of a service that a staggering two billion people--more than a quarter of the world's population--use on a frequent basis. So it's easy to forget that he's also something much simpler and more ordinary: a boss.

Every good boss should encourage employees to preserve work-life balance and take some time away from work, if only because it will make them better at their jobs and less likely to get sick. But whatever the boss says, employees will take their cue from what the boss does. It's hard to go home at 5 o'clock or take off on a week's vacation if the boss works late every evening and comes in on weekends as well. By declining to focus on his own personal life this year--especially with a toddler and newborn--Zuck seems to be saying that Facebook's key employees shouldn't either.

5. He actually may be giving up work-life balance.

The personal challenge is only one aspect of Zuckerberg's personal life, so it may be wrong to infer from this challenge that he intends to only focus on work this year. But if that is what he plans to do--well, that's a very bad idea. There's plenty of evidence that working longer and longer hours and not taking time to relax or follow outside pursuits makes you less effective at your job over time than you would be if you had a more balanced schedule

So I hope, despite this work-focused personal challenge, that Zuckerberg is setting some time aside for rest and family and fun and learning new nonwork things in 2018. All those things will make him a better leader. And Facebook needs the best leader it can have.

Published on: Jan 8, 2018
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