Leadership lessons from Elon Musk

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Frederic Brown/AFP

Since taking over Twitter, Elon Musk has done nearly everything wrong, destroying tens of billions of dollars in value in a few short weeks. Last night he conducted a binding Twitter poll to see if he should step down, and received a resounding vote of no confidence. What can leaders learn from Musk’s short and disastrous term as leader Twitter’s “chief twit?”

Let’s start with what he did right, a very short list. Twitter needed change; the status quo wasn’t working. So Musk began by conceiving some creative ideas and implementing them, even though they threatened long-held ideas about the company. For a company in crisis, this is — at least in outline — a reasonable course of action.

One reason that he failed was that they were the wrong ideas. But what really went wrong was not the choice of what to change, but the method of implementing that change. This was above all a failure of leadership.

How Musk failed

Here’s what leaders do — and Musk didn’t.

  • Understand and protect your assets. It may appear that Twitter’s main asset is its code base. But that’s shortsighted. Twitter’s three main assets were its user base, its advertisers (Twitter’s actual customers, since they’re the ones that pay almost all of its revenues), and the knowledge and experience of its staff. Musk managed to rapidly alienate users, advertisers, and staff, destroying all three assets in short order. That, more than anything else, is why Twitter is crashing and burning.
  • Develop and execute a strategy. A strategy defines what actions a company will take to improve its future standing. Strategies are not carved in stone, but to succeed, they need to be steady enough and well enough understood that staff can make decisions and follow them. Musk’s strategy apparently began with “develop new products that can generate revenue,” such as his charging for verified accounts. But his more recent moves — unsuspending accounts that trafficked in violence and hate speech, gutting content moderation, banning journalists who were criticizing him, blocking people from linking to other social media sites, and then reversing that decision — don’t add up to anything in particular and don’t appear to be part of any action towards a specific goal. A Twitter staffer observing this from inside is going to have no idea what they are supposed to do or not do. Some strategies succeed; others fail. But a lack of strategy always fails.
  • Develop a feel for your user or customer base. Musk imagined that he knew what Twitter users wanted — more “free speech,” for example. But instead, his decision caused many of the most popular users to protest and then head for the exits. His assessment that people hated wokeness, Anthony Fauci, and trans people and loved QAnon was completely off. (Did he notice how many more people voted for Biden than Trump in 2020?) His actions were based on a set of false and untested assumptions about the user base.
  • Inspire, don’t terrorize. Musk’s leadership appears to consist of “Believe in me, I’m the smartest guy here.” Any deviation from that — any challenge to it — resulted in people getting fired. True leaders articulate a vision that inspires workers to contribute. Nobody works well when the primary motivator is fear. It’s the classic fallacy of “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”
  • Trust and delegate. You can’t run an organization of the complexity of Twitter on the brain of one individual. To succeed, you need a hierarchy of leaders and managers who communicate goals to employees and then give those employees a chance to succeed. At Twitter, it certainly appeared that every decision, including which accounts to reinstate, came directly from Musk. You can’t run a company like that — because nobody but the CEO knows what to do any given day.
  • Take responsibility for decisions. Every leader I ever trusted made decisions and then accepted the consequences of those decisions. They were courageous, which inspired me. In Musk’s case, when he wasn’t making and reversing arbitrary decisions, he soon became dependent on running polls to decide what to do. As he put it, “vox populi, vox dei” — the voice of the people is the voice of God. The problem with this is not just that it is an abdication of leadership. It’s that nobody inside or outside the company can count on what will happen next, because decisions depend on an unpredictable poll. Musk’s latest poll, which will result in his stepping down as CEO, is the ultimate example of this failure of leadership.

Hubris

True leaders are confident but humble, because they know that ultimately, a mass of other people — their staff and their customers — will determine their future.

Musk was arrogant, egotistical, cruel, and capricious. These are not leadership qualities.

There is a range of ways to lead. Some leaders are tough, some empathic; some communicate frequently, others delegate that; some are creative, others steady. Different situations call for different leadership styles.

But Musk’s leadership style as CEO of Twitter is well outside of the range of successful leaders.

If you lead an organization, take these lessons away. Elon is teaching you what never to do. Whatever you do, don’t do what he did.

6 responses to “Leadership lessons from Elon Musk

  1. I read somewhere that this poll isn’t really a request for public opinion, but a way to step down with grace, however little that may be. This way, he can signal that he respects his users’opinions, not that he failed to run his company.

    Makes sense to me. For some reason, I still believe he’s not that dumb, just out of touch.

  2. As a former political speechwriter, I’ve written posts on how to avoid bullshit. One of the best ways to avoid other peoples’ bullshit is not believe your own bullshit. Elon is a perfect example of an ego exploding because he must always be “The Smartest Guy in The Room”.
    This Twitter mess is what happens when a “Leader” has a whim of iron.
    https://www.writingsofamidlifeman.com/2021/05/26/how-to-avoid-bullshit-in-your-daily-life/

    I hadn’t been following this tangled tale, thanks for an in-depth explanation.

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