A case study in lousy leadership

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Recent events have demonstrated, conclusively, that Elon Musk is a lousy leader. Understanding why can help you improve your own leadership skills.

We’ll get there. But we need to prepare:

Older readers will remember the Gabor sisters who were, it was said, famous for being famous.

Twitter is like that too: The only reason to pay attention to it is that many people pay attention to it.

Even before the takeover Twitter was a statistically questionable straw poll combined with a Dumb-Ass Statement of the Day competition. Its accelerating descent into a free-speech absolutist utopia is an excellent argument for ignoring it altogether.

Which leads to this: You’re known by the company you keep. Twitter depends entirely on advertising revenue. Expect quite a few of its advertisers to care that their good names are being tarred by Twitter’s metaphorical brush. They’ll shift their marketing to other, less unsavory platforms, just as Adidas had the good sense to sever its association with the intellectually barren entity known as “Ye.”

And oh, by the way Mr. Ye, Prince did the “formerly known as” thing earlier and better. Just sayin’.

Another thought:

Immediately upon Musk completing its takeover, Twitter’s vermin population demonstrated its ability to quickly and efficiently scale up.

Many well-intentioned but short-sighted progressive tribespeople were horrified. To them I must quote Blazing Saddles’ Hedley Lamarr: Please rest your sphincters. Those tweeting bigotry are already bigots. So are those who read and agree with them. It’s like blowing oxygen at already flaming gasoline, without adding more gas. Nobody’s convincing anyone.

But … isn’t hate speech a problem? “Hate speech” is a phrase chosen by the predictably inept Progressive messaging machine as its rallying cry. It’s a mistake: Hate speech has been protected speech since National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie.

What isn’t and shouldn’t be protected is incitement. To the extent Twitter becomes an incitement free-for-all, it will become one of the biggest litigation targets of all time.

One more point on the free-speech front: Yes, Twitter will likely restore POTUS #45’s access to the platform, but if you don’t like him – especially if you don’t like him – this is brilliant. POTUS #45 now has two alternatives, and it’s Hobson’s choice. He can either continue to post his “thoughts” on TruthSocial, at which point never mind, or he can resume posting on Twitter, thereby damaging his investment in TruthSocial.

More context: In the late 19th century wealthy patrons like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer bought distressed newspapers to ensure their financial stability. (Yes, this grossly oversimplifies the history of the journalism industry. What do you want in a one-sentence summary?)

It’s déjà vu all over again. Rich Guy Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post in 2013, providing financial stability. Likewise Rich Guy Glen Taylor, who acquired the local Minneapolis/St. Paul newspaper, the Star Tribune, in 2014.

So now, Elon Musk owns Twitter, social media’s financial Wile E. Coyote. Isn’t this just another Rich Guy subsidizing a news outlet?

Not entirely. WashPo and the Strib are, unambiguously, content providers. The Muskian Twitter, in contrast, is a publishing platform, a very different bird.

Bob’s last word: Getting back to you and what out of all this is applicable to you in your role as a leader, it’s how Elon Musk has demonstrated that he’s a lousy leader that you should pay attention to.

How so?

When someone takes over management of an organization the worst thing they can do is make decisions.

Any decisions.

Ignorance is a poor foundation for choosing a course of action. Deciding anything before getting a handle on What’s Going On In There pretty much guarantees bad outcomes.

Like Twitter being abandoned by many of its advertisers, as explained above. Musk driving customers away because he hasn’t fully thought through Twitter’s business model? Not smart.

Add this: Twitter, like all organizations, depends on the dedication and good will of talented staff. Announcing draconian layoffs before getting even the slightest whiff of a hint as to who is worth retaining pretty much ensures that those most worth retaining will be the first to bail.

It’s a problem for leaders who think they’re the smartest person in the room – they figure they’re the only one in the room smart enough to be worth listening to. And so they listen only to themselves, failing to understand that just because they’re smarter than anyone else, that doesn’t mean they’re smarter than everyone else.

On CIO.com’s CIO Survival Guide:The successful CIO’s trick to mastering politics.” As long-time KJR readers know, relationships outlive transactions. Here’s a fresh take on the subject.

Comments (10)

  • A little more context. Management at Enron was noted for adopting the “smartest guy(s) in the room” mode when conducting business. It did get them some distance before making a spectacular crater.

  • Another data point: Rich guy Marc Benioff (of Salesforce.com) bought Time magazine. I wonder how many other examples there are?

  • SUPERB piece, especially Bob’s last word.

  • I like what you’ve said here, but am interested in how you reconcile stating that Musk is a lousy leader with his success at Tesla and SpaceX.

    • Good question. Perhaps I should have said he’s become a lousy leader. I don’t have any insider information on how he treated people at Tesla and SpaceX; regardless I think his ability to formulate strategy and commit to implementing it outweighed his limitations regarding the relationship side of leadership.

      And, Tesla and SpaceX were both his creations, so his grasp of how these businesses were supposed to run were (and are) his to formulate. He isn’t in a position to build Twitter from scratch.

  • Bob –

    1. Wittgenstein said with respect to language, “The meaning is the use and the use is the meaning”

    2. Godel proved that within in any consistent system, there are always statements that can be both be proven true and be proven false.

    I believe that, unfortunately, these both apply to moderating hate speech on a social media platform.

    Also to your point, Elon Musk apparently thinks he’s smart enough that these 2 fundamental aspects of speech itself can, through some kind of magic simplification that only he can correctly see of a subtle, but crucial problem for us all, can be bypassed.

    Most of us IT folk are smart, but not every Gordian knot can be solved by simply with a blow from a sharp enough sword. A dose of humility never hurts.

    A fine article on a challenging topic.

    • Thanks, Bob. And I agree, although Wittgenstein’s dictum is perilously close to “I know it when I see it.” Seems to me, one of the challenges in crafting legislation is that by its nature, the law requires a collection of clear rules to define a set, while Wittgenstein posits that most sets can’t be clearly defined through rules.

      I’m less impressed with Godel (long, tedious, self-important and waaay over-confident rant required to explain why). Anyway, I think his finding only applies to unbounded collections of statements, on the grounds that a collection containing only a single statement can avoid ambiguities.

      Regardless, I agree with you on your points. I’ll also say that Musk does deserve immense credit for what he has achieved, which he couldn’t have achieved if he was overburdened with humility.

      • Interesting perspectives, perhaps food for a cool discussion on another day. Just don’t fire me if I happen to disagree with you on a point!

      • Bob … Firing you would be tough under our current circumstances, don’t you think? And anyway, I’d be more likely to fire someone if they agreed with me, on the grounds that one of us would be redundant.

  • I was also wondering about Tesla and SpaceX. But then I realized: Josef Stalin was a lousy leader by the criteria here but still had a pretty successful run with the USSR. At least it was successful for him.

    So one can run successful organizations by terror as well as by leadership, for a time.

    There’s another similarity across Tesla, SpaceX and the USSR. Both got a lot of their initial push by harnessing the talents of idealists who thought they were there for a cause larger than themselves. It’s only an analogy and not an exact one, but maybe we can expect Musk’s firms to peter out as their employees lose their belief. The Soviet Union did.

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