What began as a bold global initiative to challenge the information hegemony of governments and open them to wider, better-informed participation by citizens in the digital age is trickling toward irrelevance and outright shame in the cramped quarters of the Ecuadorian embassy in London, as the leader of the once-revolutionary secret-exposing site Wikileaks uses the guise of political asylum to escape serious allegations of sexual violence in Sweden. As his dwindling band of supporters argues about Swedish rape law, UK extradition treaties and theorizes on a plot to spirit him to Guantanamo Bay via Stockholm, Julian Assange attracts the public approval of creepy rape apologists and intellectually incurious political sloganeers enamored with his (relatively recent) shift toward virulent anti-Western rhetoric.
How did the once high-flying Wikileaks come to stand for a numbing, endless, victim-shaming slog aimed at somehow keeping Assange from answering the Swedish rape case? How did Wikileaks, which once stood for open government and the use of crowd-sourced online tools to reveal the impartial truth, come to create a cable television interview program featuring Assange on the network created by the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin to, as the Columbia Journalism Review put it, provide “relentlessly negative media coverage of the west—in particular, the United States?” How did an enterprise whose mission demands respect for the truth come to create and distribute a fake opinion column by Bill Keller of The New York Times,with whom Assange has openly feuded? How did an organization that, for a time, prided itself publicly on a strenuous redaction process that worked to safeguard the identity of those who might be endangered by the leaks of sensitive government documents come to dump a massive and unredacted trove of US State Department cables on the Internet with no consideration for the human consequences? How did the creator of Wikileaks find himself holed up in a London diplomatic flat, counting on the goodwill of a country known for its recent crackdown on press freedom to provide asylum?
In short, how did Wikileaks come to be nothing more – and nothing less – than the personal saga of Julian Assange, the man on the balcony in London?
There’s been a big focus over the last week on the legal machinations around Ecuador’s asylum ruling, and arguments over the sexual assault case itself – including some incredibly shameful anti-feminist behavior by Assange supporters like British MP George Galloway and former UK diplomat Craig Murray (as well as the usual troubling lack of concern for the alleged victims by prominent Assange backers like Michael Moore and Oliver Stone), but I’d like to try and pull one major lesson from this tawdry saga – and it’s one that ambitious social entrepreneurs should take note of.
If nothing else, Wikileaks is a clear (and rather spectacular) case of Founder’s Syndrome – that enterprise-killing malady that conflates the original noble goals of a start-up with the imperfect life of one mortal human being who happened to come up with the idea.
I’ve seen it before, many times, since I started covering tech start-ups with Jason Chervokas at @NY in the 1990s. I’ve seen it in start-ups I’ve been associated with. And heck, I may actually have been guilty of it in the half dozen or more companies and websites I’ve founded myself. One person embodies a growing organization, internalizes all decision-making, roots out those who come to question leadership decisions as “disloyal,” and generally manages on personal instinct and whim, leading to wildly inconsistent detours that pull the enterprise away from its original mission. That person, as Forbes contributor Kevin Ready put it recently, often has ” a deep seated (and mostly unconscious) psychological need to be the center of the operation, and to be recognized.” Sound familiar, Wikileaks followers?
The temptation to hold on, control everything, and “be the face” of the organization is just as tempting for nonprofits and social ventures. Mario Morino, author of the recent Leap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity and a social investor (and former high tech CEO), put it succinctly a few years back in discussing the evolution of causes: “The hard truth is that many organizations grow beyond the capabilities of their founders and need more and different types of leadership, skills, and broader mission ownership to succeed. This realization—that this time, the needed change falls on your doorstep—is a tough punch to the gut for a founder.”