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In Crypto Winter, Jesse Powell’s Pirate-King Leadership Style Might Be the New Normal

It seemed like the perfect recipe for a major blowback.

Kraken CEO Jesse Powell ruffled feathers in June after a New York Times article detailed a “corporate culture war” raging at the cryptocurrency exchange and his subsequent doubling down, in which he criticized the “woke activist movement” and told unhappy employees to quit.

But then something interesting happened. Most people inside Kraken and many in the broader crypto sphere sided with Powell. Job applications flooded the company. Now, six weeks later, less than 1% of Kraken’s employees have taken the severance package offered to anyone who didn’t want to get with the program.

There are at least two ways to interpret this outcome.

One is that it revealed the true preferences of a majority of workers at the exchange, and perhaps those of people in the broader crypto industry. Kraken, from this perspective, represented a rare refuge from what Powell later described as “this contingent of people who basically [think] if you don’t agree with them you’re evil, you’re a Nazi, and you must be destroyed at all costs.” At least one workplace remained where coders could just code, leaving politics at the door – and such an oasis had proven beneficial for recruitment and retention.

“The pendulum is starting to swing back the other way,” Powell said on the Unherd podcast.

Another interpretation is that the paucity of takers for the four-month severance package Kraken calls the “Jet Ski Program” signals a power shift in the job market, particularly for crypto jobs. In this view, as the economy weakens and the market enters another crypto winter, the leverage to shape workplace cultures has fallen back into employers’ hands.

Perhaps providing some support for this view, although not an apples-to-apples comparison: When crypto markets were booming, a slightly higher percentage – 5% to 6% – of unhappy, politically minded employees at rival exchange Coinbase (COIN) took a similar buyout offer.

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