The turn in the narrative regarding Tony Hsieh’s death has been striking over the past few days as stories (like these in the Journal and Forbes) began to come to light based on accounts from those who knew him better than the rest of us who had merely admired him from afar. While the universal impression remains that it’s a shame to lose such a great mind and spirit who had so much left to offer, those who have revered Tony as an inspiration (not only to CX and business in general, but also his philanthropy, sense of community, and overall joie de vivre) having never known him personally may be left wondering: What was that all about?
Here are a few thoughts, apropos only of them being mine (as if anybody asked), that may help start a conversation. These are some things perhaps we can all take away from what really is a tragedy, but also can be an opportunity for reflection and learning for all of us:
- Take care of yourself. Success may be a stimulant but it can just as well be a palliative. It can cover up and mask real issues that if not addressed can cause serious problems. While many are blaming his slide and final fate on the disruption and personal hit he took from the impact of the COVID crisis and our societal lockdowns as a result, the more we learn about Tony’s erratic and self-destructive behavior, the more we are seeing that this was more his trajectory than it was a detour brought on by a bad year. It’s not to say he had no hope, but rather, things were heading in a bad way for him already.
- Put not your faith in kings. It takes nothing away from his legacy nor does it diminish the tremendous contributions he made to industry, his communities, and those who worked with and for him, to highlight that he was a man, and therefore definitively had failings. Acknowledging that he wasn’t some divine creature sent down from On High to enlighten us doesn’t mean he didn’t positively touch lives and communities; even in an outsized and admirable way.
Las Vegas, for example, is fortunate to have had Tony, and is better off for his choosing to have relocated Zappos! there. Likewise, I as a CX professional have benefitted (as have my clients) by learning from his approach. But the world missed out on decades of his future achievements because, in the end, he was a person with flaws, just like the rest of us. That’s not a criticism of him; it’s just to call it to our own attention.
Sometimes when we put someone on a pedestal, in a way we deny him a humanity he deserves. Yes, Tony was a great man who accomplished a tremendous amount owing to his great skills and attitude. But he was a man. We did him a disservice if we didn’t recognize that, and we also put ourselves in a bad position when we lionize: It places certain successes of our own potential out of reach, and throws our perspective completely out of whack. Not to mention, when you’re surrounded by people who are always telling you how great you are, that has some negative consequences for your own psyche. Nobody wins—neither the admired nor the admiring—when we lose perspective.
- In a strange way, when you look at it from just the right angle, if you combine lesson 1 and 2, the final takeaway, if you really want to see it, is that the same respect for the humanity that should lead us to acknowledge and see the frailty and grace of people like Tony, whom we admire, could and should also be extended to those with whom we disagree. We’re still in the throes of an election season that seems will never end. So many people are using disagreements with each other over policy or politics as an excuse to deny humanity and grace in their adversaries. There’s a flip-side to the coin of dehumanizing people that comes from placing those we admire beyond reproach; it’s distinguishing those who we think are wrong about something as being more than incorrect, but even evil. If our perspective is so far distorted that our heroes can do no wrong, it’s not a huge leap to fall into the trap of considering our opponents as incapable of humanness either. What if, instead, we judged people’s actions as actions, and them each as more than just the sums of their parts? Perhaps there’s more grace we could each show all around.
Maybe that’s a stretch? Well, the loss of a good man just got me to thinking, is all.