In a Field of False Idols, Where Are the Good Leaders?

August 26, 2022

I’m tired of leaders who are bad for people soaking up all the press.

Recently the news has been full of stories about them.

I like to call them “the bad ones.”

And here’s a whole list of them:

The bad ones

To start, you’ve got Dan Price, the CEO and Founder of Gravity Payments, who first lit up social media when he gave everyone a flat salary of $70,000. Nice. But now… he’s facing a multitude of charges from felony rape to assault to reckless driving—what happened to Mr. Nice Guy?

Then there’s Adam Neumann: Founder of WeWork… who also was asked to leave due to breaches of fiduciary duties, drug use, and sexual harassment who, by the way, made oodles of money by trademarking the word “we” and despite his mega-failure with WeWork was just given $450M by investor Andreesen Horowitz to start an other real-estate company, with a name by the way that another company already owns, Flow.

Jeff Bezos: The world’s first centibillionaire, also has the claim to fame of being named by the International Trade Union as the “World’s Worst Boss.” He’s also known for verbally insulting and humiliating employees and was featured on the cover of the business NYT with stories of mistreatment.

Mark Zuckerberg: Became the world’s youngest billionaire at 23 after starting an app that ranked women who were the best looking and more recently has come under fire about his platform allowing fake news to proliferate.

Elizabeth Holmes: The rare women in these ranks who also did not escape problems and currently awaits sentencing of up to 20 years in prison for fraud in her unicorn company Theranos. She has been deemed the “World’s Most Disappointing Boss” and now has contributed to the continuing challenges women face getting VC funding of any type.

Sunny Balwani: Faces sentencing soon for his role in multiple instances fraud at Theranos and also dated Elizabeth Holmes whom he met when he was 37 and she was a HS senior at age 18. He is renowned for publicly yelling at employees and his paranoia that resulted in security making the HQ more like Fort Knox.

Elon Musk: CEO of SpaceX and Tesla who has spread misinformation about COVID-19 and was sued by the SEC for falsely tweeting misinformation. Musk calls himself a “nano-manager” and communicates primarily via vast emails, fires people in sprees, and famously tweets poo emojis at the drop of a hat.

These are the cultural leaders we seemingly worship (if you consider the stories we tell over and over again.)

Each of these leaders has qualities in common.

They probably have high IQ’s and flame into their cognitive brilliance often very young, either dropping out of college or finishing with honors awards.

They have outsized ambition and greed, usually masked under their story of “changing the world” for the better with their brilliant idea or product.

They typically have launched organizational cultures that look fabulous from the outside looking in and create a cult-like follower in employees who are lured into bigger purpose, hip values, and extreme company events that seem enticing.

They hurt people, build toxic and low-trust cultures, and get into trouble.

But in so much of our public discourse, they remain the winners, even when they are caught and convicted. They have each amassed wealth and fame, which means they will almost always rise again, okay and ready to dupe us all into believing their sham.

I think it is time we shift the narrative and tell the stories of the awesome leaders who are getting results, building enlivened cultures, and are also good for people.

Here are a few of my favorites that I feel lucky to work with!

The Good Ones

Tia Newcomer, CEO, of CaringBridge

Tia Newcomer sets the gold standard in ensuring that no one will ever have to face a health journey alone.

Still new to her role as CEO of CaringBridge, Newcomer came into the company during a time of immense market pressure amidst explosions in the tech solutions space.

By staying focused on the company’s historical values while holding space for what’s possible tomorrow, CaringBridge—under Newcomer’s leadership—has managed to care for its culture and people even as it faces dynamic change.

Ron Fritz, CEO of TechSoft 3D

Ron Fritz’s story fits the mold for “tech start-up” in many ways. He and three brilliant friends founded the company in their 20s. But there, the similarities end.

Rather than prioritizing cutthroat competition, Fritz leads with courage and conviction in his values. He walks his talk daily by balancing his professional success with a life filled with love and family.

TS3D has fluidly adapted to remote employment in COVID-19, and employees consistently report high loyalty and engagement.

Megan Haase, CEO of Mosaic Medical

Mosaic Medical is a community health center in which Haase has instilled a vibrant and robust culture that says, “we treat our employees as they are expected to treat their patients: with dignity, compassion, and care.”

During the pandemic lockdown, Haase led a breakneck transition, achieving nearly 100% telehealth within weeks of the first shutdowns. Under Haase’s guidance, Mosaic rode the ensuing 2+ years without downsizing and recently committed to a minimum wage for their CNAs of $20 per hour, a necessary step for them to keep the valuable talent they need at the very front line.

With some of the most complex health situations, Mosaic provides care to rural and local patients who desperately need care and love. Under Megan’s inclusive and collaborative watch, they do it every day.

Colin Schilling and Mark Kornei, CEO and CFO of Schilling Cider

Schilling Cider operates in an industry known for toxic culture: alcoholic beverage manufacturing.

Despite the ecosystem, Schilling and Kornei have intentionally built a kick-ass company in Seattle.

Today, Schilling Cider is known for its unique beverages, spirited brand, and young, diverse, engaged workforce who adore working for Schilling.

Leaders at Schilling are committed to their exact values and promote and model the behaviors that support them. Schilling Cider prides itself on its incredible efficiency and excellence that stems from its safe and engaged culture.

Laura Nestler, VP of Community at Reddit

Nestler lives and breathes the values of community. Long an advocate of the role community plays in all that is good in the world, Nestler sits at the center of what can sometimes be a buzzword but is not for her in her key role at the largest community in the world, Reddit.

Nestler models partnership in her interactions across and within the organization, bringing keen intelligence and creativity to the how and most importantly the why of what they do together. She listens deeply to the ideas around her, synthesizes, and manifests connections and possibilities that manage to be both inclusive and innovative at the same time. Her team respects and challenges her as they tackle the hardest nuances of keeping everyone talking without slipping into the toxic stuff.

Casey Hanisko, President of the Adventure Travel Trade Association

A rare women at the helm in a long-steeped industry of male leaders, Hanisko steadily helped this potent international trade organization keep its diverse community of members alive when all travel dried up in COVID-19. With a steady hand, transparent style, and a commitment to deep listening and awareness of difference, Hanisko remains on the station as the industry rebounds explosively, becoming the most robust travel sector today.

Monica and Maria Elena Price, Co-Owners of Experience Plus!

A family business through and through, these sisters purchased their small adventure travel tour company from their Dad.

Rick Price had been a true innovator in the industry during the 60s and 70s. Not looking to ride on their father’s coattails, Monica and Maria Elena have consistently invested in developing their leadership capacities and that of their team.

In the years before COVID, they were growing quickly.

By staying true to their history, local culture, and values, these powerhouse young mothers and small business owners persevered through the leans COVID years and are doing well in the post-COVID rebound.

Experience Plus! is still known to provide some of the highest quality cycle-touring experiences worldwide, an impossible feat if not for their loyal and skilled guide team.

Wylie Robinson, Founder of CEO of Rumpl

The CEO and Founder of Rumpl, a maker of gorgeous down blankets, keeps his focus on building both a brand and a culture that attracts the excellent, engaged, and inspiring people they need to scale.

Robinson has assembled a team of advisors beyond compare whom he leans on heavily in his ambition to grow the company.

The company began in Robinson’s living room, where he sewed himself some blankets to stay warm. Since then, the company has continuously operated on a values-first basis.

Today, products are made of 100% post-consumer materials, and the company donates 1% of all revenue to environmental non-profits.

If you need proof that a private, for-profit company can be good for the world, its people, and its bottom line, look no further than Rumpl.

Scott Allan, former CEO of Hydro Flask and current Board Member and Advisor to Camber Outdoors, Rumpl, Lotus Sustainables, Cubii and more.

Allan led Hydro Flask for nearly eight years, first as President and CEO in 2012 and then as SVP/GM after Hydro Flask’s $210 million acquisition by Helen of Troy in 2016.

Allan served at the helm of Hydro Flask through what is a difficult time for any organizational culture: acquisition. He modeled his commitment to courageous leadership and culture by being curious, making room for everyone’s voices, and building partnerships at every level.

Allan has consistently demonstrated a commitment to continuous learning, work, and life, being vibrant, and leveraging people’s talents.

He continues to serve on the Board of small scaling companies in the outdoor products industry while also giving his time generously to developing more talent in the industry as a Board Member for OSU/Cascades and Camber Outdoors.

Krista Parent, Deputy Director of the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators

The Coalition of Oregon School Administrators, COSA, was founded in 1974 to give Oregon’s education leaders a united voice in helping to shape public policy, advocate for schools and speak on behalf of students.

Parent has served in several roles with COSA over the years and has served as an educator and superintendent.

Passionate about helping administrators lead with courage, wellness, and excellence, Parent has steadfastly created new programs and processes to support leaders in the statewide education sector, even as they have come under fire for rising political tensions and recurring crises related to COVID-19.

An optimistic survivor, Parents’ skill at bringing diverse people together to lead in service of students makes her one of the bravest leaders I know.

These are just a few of the high-integrity, humble leaders I engage with daily.

We need to celebrate more organizations and leaders like these in our business magazines, movies, and social media posts.

Small businesses of 500 employees or fewer make up 99.9% of all U.S. businesses and 99.7% of firms with paid employees. Of the new jobs created between 1995 and 2020, small businesses accounted for 62%—12.7 million compared to 7.9 million by large enterprises. Non-profits employ 12.3 million people, with payrolls exceeding most other U.S. industries, including construction, transportation, and finance.

We need fewer unicorn mega-tech companies led by superstar manipulators and more brave and honest leaders like the ones I mention here who are committed to creating cultures that are good for people, even against tremendous odds.