Tall Poppy Syndrome and a Fear of Failure are Alive and Well in Australia.
With the recent demise of George Calombaris’ MADE empire, the media frenzy and subsequent feasting on his corporate carcass blatantly highlighted how this country views its entrepreneurs… as black and white. Success or failure. Succeed and you’ll be worshiped and put on a pedestal for the rest of us to aspire to. But if you dare fail… look out.
As a barrage of negative articles and comments circulated about the downfall of the Calombaris empire, I was shocked and dismayed by how much vitriol was directed towards Calombaris personally and how the media and the public gloated over the fact that not only were his restaurants closing, but that he had to sell his house. His family home. There was a deservingly consistent outpouring of sympathy for his staff, often referring to them as the “real losers in all this”. I acknowledge the anguish they have undoubtedly suffered as a result of losing their jobs, combined with a well publicised underpayment issue in 2019 (and another less publicised issue in 2017) and I genuinely feel for them. I don’t believe that “being a nice bloke” or a celebrity or a creator of jobs gives any employer immunity from the law.
In spite of a decade of dominance across the culinary scene, including opening twelve restaurants and pioneering one of the most successful TV shows of all time, the public have been quick to condemn their once revered hero. Seemingly, the issue of underpaying staff is as good a reason as any to give him a swift kick in the pants on the way out. But that’s okay, we can do that. Can’t we? After all, he had a mansion in Toorak. The rich guy gets it in the neck. Who cares? Isn’t it just so satisfying to see another celebrity fall from grace? I’m sure he made out like a bandit anyway… the rich guy always does, right? The notion that “rich people don’t really suffer real losses” is not only grossly inaccurate, it highlights the class warfare that exists in our system.
While there are plenty of things he could have done better (including a poorly handled announcement of the closure on social media), what concerned me most was that the media constantly portrayed him as a “failure”. In fact, I struggled to find any article that didn’t use the word “failure” or a similar variant to describe Calombaris and his empire. Now, for the most part, I know this is mostly just sensationalist headline grabbing, but I believe that it’s time to change that narrative.
Without romanticising too much, there are a few things to keep in mind. Over the years, Calombaris and the MADE Group have employed thousands of people. He self-reported his underpayment in 2017, took the fall entirely on his own shoulders, faced the music on national television, apologised and paid the money back. For over a decade he ran a highly successful, award winning and profitable business that delivered a world class food experience. How anyone can refer to Calombaris as a “failure” is absolutely astounding. When it came to the Kitchen and front of house, he’s hard to fault, but back of house was clearly a different story. Could he have run his business better? Absolutely. Does he deserve to be branded a failure and run out of town? Not at all.
When “wage theft” (as the media have portrayed it) applies to corporates (and there have been plenty of them), it gets only a fraction of the attention. Why? Well, it’s far easier for senior executives to blame their underlings and shoot a few sacrificial generals, and resultantly achieve some convenient, clinical distance. But perhaps the most critical factor is that Calmobaris is a public personality. Because of his profile, the public and the media felt they had the right to defile his achievements and hold him personally accountable. His empire was built of the back of his name, whereas an interspersed group of executives who represent a complex and relatively faceless corporate organisation are, by comparison, much harder figures to pin blame. But are they any less guilty?
This unabating public shaming reflects just how we view the concept of “failure”. We are scared to death of it. We have stooped to the level of singling out individuals who fail to meet our moral expectations and we sit in judgement over them in a very public, kangaroo court. What message does this send to budding entrepreneurs? What message does this send to senior executives and CEOs? Don’t take risks. Be conservative. Whatever you do… don’t fail. Failure = Bad.
Failure is not the enemy. Failure is the platform for learning and development. You will learn more from your failures than your successes. These are not new concepts.
Tall poppy syndrome is not exclusive to Australia. American entrepreneur, Elon Musk has faced decades of pushback from conservative analysts, investors and a cleverly constructed group of smear campaign specialists who were practically salivating at the thought that his vision for Tesla might not come to fruition. In fact, Tesla is the second most shorted stock in America. There are swarms of investors who are actively betting against him, willing him to fail. They play an active role in promoting cynicism in the media in an effort to make the stock tank. However, Tesla consistently bucked expectations and their stocks have reached record highs… Needless to say, the short selling bets have not paid off. Now, I’m not suggesting that the short selling market is a bad thing – You can make or lose money any way you want, but just how healthy is it for the economy overall to have an active cohort of naysayers who are actively seeking to damage and discredit a company before it even gets off the ground?
The knock-on effect from a culture of conservatism is potentially devastating to our economy. We are slipping behind other developed countries, including dropping four spots to number 22nd on the global innovation index. This is not the time to ridicule our entrepreneurs, it’s time to elevate them. They risk their own money, their houses. They raise capital and attract international investment. They create jobs. They are the future of our country.
We need to collectively resist the urge to avoid taking risks and instead, educate our leaders, our boards and our shareholders as to why failure shouldn’t be shamed, or at best, tolerated. Failure should be celebrated. We must demand that Australia becomes more innovative and we all support the “dreamers” and the “doers”, those who are brave enough to fail. We won’t attack you. We won’t shame you. If you do fail… we salute you.
We need to end tall poppy syndrome. Forever.