The Coinbase decision: When a bad choice is your best choice

Beauty and heartbreak leading through times of social change

Welcome, entrepreneurs.

What a wonderful week this has been. Music, sketching, writing, building, and coaching. Ah, do I ever love the work of helping leaders rediscover their best self, over and over and over.

The definition of a professional may be someone who can do her best work when she doesn’t feel like it, but even the best professionals do better work when they’re having fun. I found my flow this week, and I wish you all the same. May you find your flow, and produce your most inspired work.

Some very grey areas to dive into this week, with emotions running high on both sides.

Plus: a killer resource, some wisdom from an unexpected place, and a small act that can make a big difference.

Let’s dive in.

The terrible vs the life threatening

The world is changing rapidly, and as a leader you may be forced to take a position on issues that are not directly related to the mission of your company, and increasingly “no comment” is no longer an option. On Monday, Brian Armstrong, CEO of cryptocurrency startup Coinbase, took his stand.

The whole release is worth reading, but this excerpt does a good job summarizing:

Everyone is asking the question about how companies should engage in broader societal issues during these difficult times, while keeping their teams united and focused on the mission. Coinbase has had its own challenges here, including employee walkouts. I decided to share publicly how I’m addressing this in case it helps others navigate a path through these challenging times.

In short, I want Coinbase to be laser focused on achieving its mission, because I believe that this is the way that we can have the biggest impact on the world. We will do this by playing as a championship team, focus on building, and being transparent about what our mission is and isn’t.

First off, the sentence “Coinbase has had its own challenges here, including employee walkouts” gives you a very real sense of what life has been like for him as a leader recently. In the last 15 years running companies I dealt with many cultural crises, including employees banding together to deliver a message to leadership, and I remember the intense hurt that accompanied those situations. As a leader you want your team to feel fulfilled at work, and criticism to the contrary can cut like a very personal knife.

On the other hand, I also understand the pain felt by the employees. People are passionate about social issues like never before, and they want their company to support what they often see as a moral imperative. Passionate employees give everything they have to their company, and they are well within their rights to demand everything of their leaders.

But this creates an impossible situation for the leader. As Armstrong put it:

while I think these efforts are well intentioned, they have the potential to destroy a lot of value at most companies, both by being a distraction, and by creating internal division.

He’s right. Most startups don’t starve from a lack of things to do, they drown from too many. The most important asset you have at any company is your focus and that of your team, and at Coinbase it’s Armstrong’s primary responsibility to jealously guard that focus. Only by saying “no” to many worthy causes can a team fully say yes to the one thing at which they can be extraordinary (never mind the internal division that it could cause, which is also real). The risk of allowing your company to adopt any new issue as your own is significant, let alone all of the social issues that are important (in competing ways) to members of your team.

But there’s significant risk in taking the stand he did, too. By stating explicitly that by virtue of them working at Coinbase employees agree not to “debate causes or political candidates internally, expect the company to represent our personal beliefs externally, or take on activism outside of our core mission at work,” Armstrong runs the risk of communicating to his employees that only their productivity, not themselves, are welcome at the company. There’s a razor thin line between “stay focused,” and “shut up and dribble” (on this point I read Armstrong’s blog post as iffy, but it almost doesn’t matter because no matter what a leader says, some people will find fault in it).

There’s no right answer to the situation in which many leaders currently find themselves. Patagonia is subject to the same external macro factors, and did the calculus differently. They made the bet that supporting a particular political agenda would galvanize their customers and employees alike, and in doing so risked alienating large swaths of them, and also took on additional burden that they felt they could manage.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Such are the decisions of leadership.

A mentor of mine, when I was first becoming a CEO, told me that if I wasn’t willing to choose between a terrible option and a life threatening option, I shouldn’t be a CEO. What we’re seeing today is leadership at its most beautiful and its most heartbreaking. Pressed into making a call by a righteous anger not of his making, Armstrong had to make a call, knowing that whatever he did would hurt a part of his company. Knowing that doing so would hurt real people, whose souls were clearly already in pain.

And (probably) knowing he would catch hell for it.

The call Armstrong made is almost incidental in my view (and will of course be spun into something it isn’t anyway). Different situations call for different decisions, and only he knows all the factors. But I see what went into making that call, and I applaud him for doing the hard thing unwaveringly, and communicating it clearly.

Armstrong again:

I recognize that our approach is not for everyone, and may be controversial. I know that many people may not agree, and some employees may resign. I also know that some of what I’ve written above will be misinterpreted, whether accidentally or on purpose. But I believe it’s the right approach for Coinbase that will set us up for success long term, and I would rather be honest and transparent about that than equivocate and work in a company that is not aligned.

The utility of a transcendent purpose

Leaders everywhere are being asked to lead through chaotic times right now, with unprecedented opportunities for social impact, or for distraction. The old tools of leadership are insufficient for today’s world.

I remember simpler times when it was enough to simply get people on the same page. When the goal of a mission was functional alignment and nothing more. A few companies were called “purpose-driven” and stood out as leaders and innovators, the types of companies you moved across the country to work for. As rare as leprechauns.

But as was illustrated this week with Coinbase, leaders today no longer have the luxury of opting out. “No comment” is itself, increasingly, the most tone deaf of all comments. And in this world, the best — and perhaps, in the end, only — defense against the many forces competing for the hearts and minds of a team, is purpose. Only a purpose so deep and meaningful that it causes people to willingly put their differences aside in its service (be they political, social, racial or otherwise), can effectively bring people together.

Coinbase’s mission is “to create an open financial system for the world.” The words are compelling, and will play a critical role in Coinbase’s future moving forward. But the words are only a reflection of the leader saying them — what matters more is the way that Brian took a stand. What matters most are his actions moving forward, and that they’re consistent with his words, and his deepest values. Even when it’s messy as hell.

His stand won’t be for everyone, and it will most certainly not be for some. But sometimes a leader has to choose between the terrible and the life-threatening. And there’s a very human beauty to that Sophie’s Choice.

I see you, Brian Armstrong.

If you’re wrestling with your own version of this issue, I’d love to hear from you. I can’t promise any answers, but I am a pretty good sounding board. Hit me up in the comments or reply to this email.

If you’re not, enjoy it while it lasts.

The Founder’s Library

First time founders face the perfect storm:

  • A large don’t-know-don’t-know bucket

  • An implicit (and usually incorrect) expectation that because you have gotten funding you should already know how to do all parts of your job.

  • “Crushing it” culture.

Add it all up, and you have a group of leaders running around with big, and understandable, gaps in their skills and experience, and an instinct for self-preservation that prevents them from filling them.

It’s because I’ve been the 25 year old CEO with imposter syndrome that I appreciate the High Output Founders Library so much. The brainchild of Steve Schlafman, coach, former investor and former operator, the HOFL is quickly becoming a go-to resource for founders to safely fill their don’t-know-don’t-know bucket from the comfort of their home office.

Sign that the world isn’t going entirely to hell

Building a company can be a thankless game. Perhaps because of this, one of my favorite things is when people thank other people. It seems like such a small thing, but it carries enormous weight.

This is top of mind because a friend of mine, Tim Streit of Grand Ventures, went out of his way to thank and recognize one of his portfolio companies, Sportsman Tracker. He didn’t have to. It took some time to do so, time I’m sure he could have justifiably spent sourcing a new deal or putting out a fire. But he did, and I know the difference that can make.

Streit here:

When COVID hit, however, no one could predict the impact that shelter in place orders and social distancing would have…Mass unemployment and widespread economic uncertainty led us to significantly trim our financial forecasts for the year and cut back on hiring plans.

With a lean team and tight cash management, SMT plowed ahead on developing new features and marketing strategies to react to the challenges posed by COVID. Luckily for us, our new recipe seems to have caught on. The hunting and angling industries are having their best years in over a decade and SMT has delivered the top toolset in the market.

For all the companies that were told they’d never make it, keep on fighting.

For all the companies hit hard by COVID, here’s to a quick recovery!

For all the founders and visionaries, thanks for creating a better future for your customers, employees, and communities.

You might say “but it’s their job.” Yes, you’d be right. And it still makes a difference.

You might say “he’s just promoting his company.” Again, you’d be right. And praising publicly still makes a difference.

I’m a nobody in this interaction — an admirer of both parties from afar. But as that nobody I want to say: Tim, thanks.

Now I’m going to Taco Bell to pay for the person behind me in the drive thru and see if I can start a giving chain. I invite you to do the same.

Tweet I have been thinking about all week (click on the tweet for a multi-tweet thread)

This is a beautiful story, and one which I have wrestled with for the last week. The author discusses the tension between the fast life and the slow life as personified in his relationship. For me, I think it’s as relevant a paradox inside the human psyche itself.

I live fast. As a rule, I push. Laura will tell you. I’ve had a clock in my head my whole life, ticking away the seconds until I am out of time. I have so much to do. After 10 years running a VC backed company, that pace burned me out. I reached its end, attained the rewards I was pursuing, and found it wanting.

So I resolved to try slow this last year (the entire world joining me for the past 6 month of it). I spent months studying philosophy, diving deep into Buddhism, Taoism. Even permitting myself to dive into Christianity, at least the mystical versions like the Red Letters, Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr. The common thread amongst all these: a slower pace of life. A precise attention to the moment. A perspective from which all the hustling and bustling looks sadly misguided. For the better part of a year I’ve lived the life of the small job and the trifles, if not the Church. I understand its allure. Its logic still more compelling in my estimation than that underpinning American hustle.

But taken to the end, I’ve found that slow, too, is incomplete. I can run. Not everyone can run the way I can, I know, and therefore I rob the world of that essence in only being still.

So it’s not the fast life I’m after, and it’s not the slow life. Maybe it’s both.

When I run into a paradox I think either I’m a total horse’s ass to have gotten to this point, or I’m fruitfully near the edge of my discipline. It adds excitement to life to wonder which it is. — Charlie Munger

A beautiful manifesto from an unexpected source

A hallmark of most leaders is the tendency to be harder on themselves than they are on anyone else. To push themselves past the limits that they would ever expect of others.

This is what’s required to be great. But we must also recognize that it takes a toll, and be generous with ourselves in the replenishment of our spirit.

That in mind, I present Charlie Chaplin’s manifesto on loving yourself (image at the bottom):

As I began to love myself

I found that anguish and emotional suffering are only warning signs that I was living against my own truth.

Today, I know, this is Authenticity.

As I began to love myself

I understood how much it can offend somebody if I try to force my desires on this person, even though I knew the time was not right and the person was not ready for it, and even though this person was me.

Today I call this Respect.

As I began to love myself

I stopped craving for a different life, and I could see that everything that surrounded me was inviting me to grow.

Today I call this Maturity.

As I began to love myself

I understood that at any circumstance,

I am in the right place at the right time, and everything happens at the exactly right moment.

So I could be calm.

Today I call this Self-Confidence.

As I began to love myself

I quit stealing my own time,

and I stopped designing huge projects

for the future.

Today, I only do what brings me joy and happiness, things I love to do and that make my heart cheer, and I do them in my own way and in my own rhythm.

Today I call this Simplicity.

As I began to love myself

I freed myself of anything

that is no good for my health –

food, people, things, situations,

and everything that drew me down

and away from myself.

At first I called this attitude a healthy egoism.

Today I know it is Love of Oneself.

As I began to love myself

I quit trying to always be right,

and ever since

I was wrong less of the time.

Today I discovered that is Modesty.

As I began to love myself

I refused to go on living in the past

and worrying about the future.

Now, I only live for the moment,

where everything is happening.

Today I live each day,

day by day,

and I call it Fulfillment.

As I began to love myself

I recognized

that my mind can disturb me

and it can make me sick.

But as I connected it to my heart,

my mind became a valuable ally.

Today I call this connection Wisdom of the Heart.

We no longer need to fear arguments,

confrontations or any kind of problems

with ourselves or others.

Even stars collide,

and out of their crashing, new worlds are born.

Today I know: This is Life!

~Charlie Chaplin


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