Bill Gates: Only adult in the room

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Bill Gates (left) laughing with Warren Buffet (right) - Source: LinkedIn

Today Bill Gates announced his decision to step down from both of his public board positions which includes Berkshire Hathaway and more notably, Microsoft. This comes thirty four years, exactly to the day, after Microsoft went public and he took up his board seat.

I have become a follower of Gates more so in the past few years than in any of the years he ran Microsoft. Rarely do I agree with almost all of the ideas, observations and methods of a single person but the Bill Gates of 2020 is certainly one of the exceptions. Along with his wife, their philanthropic focus casts a wide net - energy, climate change, education, public health, poverty and more.

I really enjoy retirement-aged-Bill Gates' nonpartisan, pragmatic approach to humanitarianism. He often feels like the only adult left in the room or at least, the only adult that still has any interest at all in the well-being of the world at large.

He's certainly passionate... I think that as he's grown older that the ratio of shouting to non-shouting has tremendously decreased
  • Microsoft employee (source: Bill Gates: How a Geek Changed the World)

As Gates has gotten older and put on the philanthropist hat, his conflict resolution style has switched starkly to using a collaborative (win-win) approach to resolving conflict and negotiating.

Early days as "Shrewd Businessman"

The story of Bill Gates, Microsoft and the rise of the personal computer is well documented. There is no need to revisit the story but it is important to acknowledge that building the first real software company in the 1970s and keeping it going strong for decades is certainly a testament to him and his colleagues. His public image of "super nerd" is well deserved and infamous reputation as shrewd businessman is also warranted. His leadership style at Microsoft was often described as being "confrontational", "passionate" and "authoritarian". It is unlikely that Gates would have been as successful as he was if he only ever adopted an authoritarian style but it is what he was known for.

During the 1990s Bill Gates became an unlikely celebrity and a reputation developed around Gates as a bully in the business world. The general consensus was Microsoft did not need to stay as aggressive as it did after it had reached market dominance. So much so that in 1998 the US government brought anti-trust charges against Microsoft for "unlawfully taking advantage of monopoly and undermining consumer choice"

Bill Gates in his Bellevue office, 1980 - Source: Microsoft archives

Because of the anti-trust case, we will never know how Microsoft or Bill Gates would have continued unchecked. With hindsight, he probably could have handled those situations with more grace. His goal at Microsoft was “A computer on every desk, and in every home, running Microsoft software” and his core responsibility was to his company. He defended his responsibility pursued that goal with absolute vigour.

The Switch

Following his tenure at Microsoft, Gates' traits may have remained the same but his behaviour changed with his circumstances. Gates task-oriented behaviour began to model and move closer to relationship behaviour. His philanthropy efforts focus on the needs of others.

In public today, Gates tends to not challenge anyone directly. Personal attacks are not really his style. He will point out facts and the best course of action as opinion. His opinion is always supported by evidence that he has gathered and he does a fantastic job of clarifying his point of view. He will use sharp sarcasm at times but his current approach is one of collaborative discussion.

For instance, Gates is more bearish than most on the current state of solar as a viable alternative energy source and backs nuclear more than solar (he still invests quite heavily in solar). He has a well thought out "intermittency" argument for this. An easy person to target in this argument is Elon Musk yet he does not publicly criticize him. His emotional intelligence has transcended that of his younger self. I assume he understands that discouraging progress is a net negative. Elon Musk hasn't gotten there yet:

Elon Musk passive jab at Gates after he bought a Porsche Taycan instead of a Tesla
Elon Musk claiming Gates is wrong but does not address the intermittency problem

If he is pushed far enough he will respond more directly - "You are wrong and here is why". It almost feels like triggering latent program and maybe it's from his days leading Microsoft. Even then he usually leaves room for rebuttal and he expects responses that are as well thought out as his.  

Bill Gates still takes everything outside of work in a light-hearted way which is something that has never changed.

Vision and problem solving approach

It is well known that Bill Gates is an avid reader and he prides himself on this. By accumulating knowledge it makes him a better decision maker, philanthropist and global citizen.

Bill gates at his desk, 2019 - Source: WSJ
When you spend your time thinking intensely about a field.... that's where you can do great things.

Solving problems at Microsoft came with brute force and passion. The passion is still there today but the force is more passive. For instance, he identified highly infectious viruses as one of the biggest risks to global catastrophe and was proven correct with the recent Covid-19 pandemic. No one can say that his approach to addressing this issue mirrored the force he used at Microsoft. (April 27, 2020 Update: I have been proven wrong - "Bill Gates details how his foundation shifted focus 'almost entirely' to addressing COVID-19")

What about the money?

Gates has acknowledged that having money is a privilege and has enabled him to do the things that he loves. He has a history of some extravagant purchases but has always made those purchases privately without flaunting his wealth. This hasn't changed.

Gates also cofounded "The Giving Pledge" in 2009 with Warren Buffet which is a campaign to encourage extremely wealthy people to contribute a majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes. This pledge is a tool for addressing income disparity and a mechanism for the redistribution of wealth.

He doesn't want to get political

It is clear that Bill Gates does not wish to become a political leader but wishes to remain a high profile advocate and investor in global issues. This should not be confused as Bill gates not understanding politics - he definitely does. He understands it so well that he picks his battles very carefully.

Many have argued that he is too old to take up such a position but I disagree. Gates is currently 64 while other prominent world leaders are much older. Donald Trump, the current sitting US President in 2020 is 73 years old. Instead, this is his retirement and this is how he wants his retirement to play out.

I won't be running for President because I am super committed to the work Melinda and I are doing at the Foundation and outside the Foundation. I agree it is important to have a President who thinks long term about the US role in the world and the research to solve disease burdens and costs and to tackle climate change and improve education.

I do think people are expecting too much from Government. Yes Government can do better but local groups can do a lot that government can't -- helping out in schools, reaching out to people in poverty. This is also true internationally. I would like to see this civil society sector step up a lot more. Some issues like abortion or even immigration we may never get a consensus on but there are things like better health and better education that we can achieve"

Gates does not want to run for US President. The context here is that Bill believes he can accomplish more as a private individual and I'm just fine with that.

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