Why did Bill Gates’ divorce immediately shatter his image? And why a spotless public image may turn out to be an especially dangerous strategy
For years, it was enough to hear the name “Bill Gates” for a clearly defined, distinct image to pop up before one’s eyes. A pair of old-fashioned glasses with big frames. And behind the glasses, the face of the ultimate computer geek. Clever, efficient, a little robotic, a lot of rich.
In the 1970s, the founder generation of Silicon Valley had already formulated and defined three characters: the charismatic, unstoppable visionary (Steve Jobs); the inventor, a pensive stoner, whose only wish was to be left alone to develop and program (Steve Wozniak); and the nerd who knew how to put it all together: developer of the products, proficient in their professional aspects, who knew how to turn it all into money, determinedly and consistently (Gates).
Jobs rose and fell and rose again, and his complex character was analyzed, scripted, and ultimately became immortal, precisely because of his untimely death. Wozniak wanted nothing to do with fame, and Gates was the ultimate tycoon until he stepped down from Microsoft and became the world’s biggest philanthropist.
And then care the divorce, after 24 years of marriage to Melinda. The announcement shattered the image capital he had accumulated throughout his life. It turned out that Gates had had an affair with an employee who was his subordinate and that he was ousted from the power centers at Microsoft’s helm following the fiasco, and that he had had ties with Jeffrey Epstein. And it was broadly publicized how, for twenty years, an entire system had taken care to protect Gates and maintain the image of a bespectacled, efficient, dull nerd. Things that had never been said about him were suddenly spewed across pages and pages in the economic press.
Almost every significant public figure has skeletons in his closet, waiting to break free when the time is ripe. Even Gates. The surprise wouldn’t have been as big, if Gates had been wise enough to build a rounded character for himself, less constricted, in good time, before the skeletons were exposed.
What is interesting is that his image shattered at exactly the time when Gates was on a roll as far as his public image was concerned. After years in which, alongside his massive wealth, he was characterized by conservative forecasts, which, on more than a single occasion, proved wrong (“I see little commercial potential for the Internet for at least 10 years”, he said in 1994, just before the Internet exploded), COVID-19 became his finest hour. Gates was one of the first to predict that the world would be forced to deal with a massive pandemic. When the virus began to rage across the globe he donated vast sums, funding vaccines from his and his wife’s/ex-wife’s foundation. Now, it has all fallen by the wayside. Quickly forgotten, in the 21st century, yesterday’s news.
On the face of it, a spotless public image is the master goal of every human being. Who doesn’t want to be larger than life, superhuman, or, perhaps, non-human?
But the lesson to be learned from the story of Bill Gates is that a public image should not be so tightly crafted, most certainly given future developments such as these. A spotless public image is exposed to every speck of dirt.
Had Gates displayed a more human persona, more rounded, more carefully crafted, the scratches would have been less noticeable. For example, if he had publicly exhibited a few shortcomings.
If he had talked about his family problems, the huge challenges, the achievements alongside the failures, the public would not have been so shocked by the facts, which were met with utter surprise when the breakup was announced.
And that’s a shame.
(Photo: Kjetil Ree | creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en | Edited by Unik)