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Billionaire Peter Thiel's Major Accusations Against Google Teaches a Crucial Lesson for Leaders Looking to Mix Politics and Business

Inc. logo Inc. 7/17/2019 Jason Aten
Peter Thiel wearing a suit and tie: 2018 New York Times Dealbook© Getty Images 2018 New York Times Dealbook

At a conservative political conference, the Facebook board member and PayPal co-founder accused Google of assisting the Chinese military--and of treason.

There's nothing like a massive fight between the biggest players in the field. Add in some political intrigue and you've certainly got the makings of an epic scene. Or at least one you've probably seen on HBO.

But this isn't about Game of Thrones, although there's plenty of intrigue. This week, Silicon Valley tech investor and Facebook board member Peter Thiel leveled an accusation against Google that the company was committing "treason" by helping the Chinese military, and that the senior leadership of the company had been infiltrated by the Chinese.

He didn't stop there, and went on to ask the FBI and CIA to investigate Google.

That's a pretty significant claim, that at least to my knowledge, hasn't been backed up by any evidence. Thiel seems to argue that because the company declined to continue a U.S. Defense Department contract but continued to work with China to get its search engine back online, Google's actions amount to a betrayal of its country.

Ironically, it's worth noting that Google said yesterday during Congressional testimony that it has abandoned its project to build a search engine that would meet China's censorship requirements.

You are your brand.

To be clear, Thiel wasn't making the comment as a representative of Facebook, but that's a distinction without a difference when you are a high profile and outspoken board member.

Even when you aren't officially representing your company, you are your brand's most visible--and valuable--asset. How you chose to spend your time and what you say and do have a direct impact on your company.

Thiel's comments came at a conservative political conference, and it's hard to separate his comments from his affiliation with Facebook, Google's largest competitor in the digital advertising space, as well as his affiliation with a White House that hasn't been too fond of the search engine.

A lesson on glass houses.

The lesson here is simple: politics is bad for business. It's certainly Thiel's right to comment on anything he chooses, but that doesn't make it a good idea. Throwing firebombs at a competitor, whether for political purposes or not, also falls into the category of "things to avoid."

First, there's the whole glass houses thing. If a board member of Facebook wants to start talking about companies the government should be investigating, he's probably already got enough on his hands. Facebook literally just got hit with a $5 billion fine over repeat privacy violations.

And when Thiel had an opportunity to give shareholders more say over Facebook's direction, he voted with the other board members and management to maintain the status quo--the same one that gave us the privacy issues in the first place.

Second, there's a larger principle at stake. Throwing shade at a competitor is one thing (though it's rarely the best play), but accusing it of treason is another. Especially since it has become a term that gets thrown around too often, but has a serious meaning. Thiel knows what it means, but I suspect he doesn't actually care because the buzz associated with putting it out there is worth more than the actual definition.

A better option.

If you throw a firebomb, one of two things will likely happen, and neither is particularly good for you. If you're right, fine, but you'll have given up the high road, and sacrificed some of your own credibility simply because you chose to go that route. And in Google's case, I suspect that if Thiel's accusation were true, the relevant agencies are probably already aware.

On the other hand, if it isn't true, you'll end up helping your competitor and looking like a fool. You'll also lose credibility, and everyone will question you the next time you have something to say. In the back of their mind, they'll remember you can't be trusted when it counts.

Here's a better option: just focus on doing your thing better than anyone else. Stop worrying so much about everyone else, and trust that the best way to beat your competition is on the playing field, not in the cheap seats.

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