Does Character Still Count? Authenticity in the Age of Start-ups

Mei Ling Doery
15 Oct 2023

“Character is a permanence which we say belongs to us."

- Paul Ricoer

Reflection

When we look back on a generation of iconoclastic leaders who promise to revolutionise the world, it's clear that not all go on to create viable businesses. In fact, when it comes to start-ups, all that glitters is definitely ain't gold. According to Chris Bakk, the Forbes 30 under 30 has both raised US$5.6 billion in funding and perpetrated frauds and scams worth over US$18.5 billion. Closer to home in Australia, frauds perpetrated in 2021 totalled over AU$3.1 billion, an 80% annual increase.

These facts beg several questions: is this part of risk-taking and capitalism? Are we too quick to trust compelling narratives? Or skip due diligence on the individuals behind them? During the last decade, there have been several high-profile start-up disasters led by change-the-world types. How has this occurred?

The Charismatic Mirage

Examining the wreckage of flamed-out start-ups, what can be observed, repeatedly, is an over-indexing on charisma. 

When used for good 'persuasion' forms a key part of gaining cooperation. That said, in the hands of 'cracked characters', slick stories become a vector for exploitation.  Whether Elizabeth Holmes, Adam Neumann, Sam Bankmann-Fried, or Billy McFarland, the sell closed on spin. In each instance, everyone from investors, influencers, employees, and the average consumer over-indexed on confiddence.  In doing so, the authenticity of claims went under-checked.

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Celebrity Endorsements & Disembodiment

Part of this can be attributed to our age of digital media. The proliferation of blue ticks and celebrity endorsements has enabled auras of false credibility. We often assume that if someone has a significant following or a verified social media account, they must be trustworthy. Our biologically pro-social tendencies towards persuasion make it hard to discern true visionaries from rabid self-promoters.

Alongside this, the norming of asynchronous communication and disembodiment compound conditions for deception. Whereas once 'snake-oil salesmen' used to be contained to a village, ‘cracked characters’ can now disseminate their narratives to a global audience, anywhere, anytime. Moreover, our physical dislocation from each other makes it challenging to verify information. 

A Way Forward

How can we identify ‘cracked characters’? And how can we recognize authentic entrepreneurs who have genuinely good intentions to improve the lives of many?

To navigate the 'Character Crisis',  we must hold founders and ourselves accountable to high standards of integrity, while aligning our values with people, profit, and the planet. Understanding this is what drove the formation of MDMD.

What happens next?

Since 2020, we have helped clients create transformational companies—built on commercial potential and designed for wholehearted growth. Now, on the verge of 2024, what happens next?

Our clients are grappling with that question in ways that re-imagine business, resources, information, and how we learn and consume. Do you have a project you’d like to speak with us about?

Get in touch HERE

If you think you have something that you could add to the team then feel free to contact us