Giving in to temptation is usually a bad idea. So here goes.
A couple of weeks ago I pointed out a few ways Elon Musk is proving himself to be a lousy leader.
In the interest of piling on, I figure a more balanced report card for scoring Musk’s leadership would be helpful. We’ll base it on, predictably enough, yours truly’s eight tasks of leadership: (1) setting direction, (2) delegating, (3) staffing, (4) decision-making, (5) motivating, (6) managing team dynamics, (7) engineering culture, and (8) communicating.
Musk invented two whole industries from scratch – electric vehicles and private-sector space exploration; three if you include PayPal. I admire these successes but know too little about the leadership skills he brought to them for a fair assessment. So I’m going to limit this report card to his performance taking over leadership of a going concern as Twitter’s new “Chief Twit.” With luck you’ll find useful principles you can apply in your own leadership situations. Here goes:
Setting direction: Grade = godawful. F. Couldn’t possible do worse. As pointed out last week, Musk’s decision to turn Twitter into an uncurated bastion of unfettered free speech ignored Twitter’s entire business model – selling access to its subscribers to advertisers. Advertisers, appalled by the noxious content hundreds of Twitter trolls cheerfully posted, figured there are plenty of other avenues for reaching their target markets.
This would have been an F-minus had Musk not just announced Twitter’s new “de-boost and de-monetize approach to hate speech. Who’s going to program it, though, is anyone’s guess. See “staffing,” below.
Delegating: Grade = F. Indicator: All on his own, Musk is turning off a bunch of microservices he’s decided are bloatware. It’s de-delegation by a manager less qualified than the delegatee, a classic mistake. The grade would be worse, except that he earned it in part with his staffing performance, by getting rid of everyone he should be delegating to.
Staffing: Grade = F-minus, and I’m tempted to extend the grading scale to the G range. Firing the entire executive suite plus half the workforce before figuring out what his dearly departed even did has left Twitter without the expertise needed to lead what remains of a workforce that no longer has, according to some reports, even the ability needed to restore failed servers.
Decision-making: Grade = F. Leaders have five basic ways to make decisions – authoritarianism, consultation, consensus, delegation, and voting. Which to use is situational; each has its own characteristics and trade-offs. Musk apparently relies exclusively on authoritarian decision-making – the best choice in a crisis, but in other situations risks creating more crises than it fixes.
Motivation: Grade = F-minus. As pointed out in this space (for example, here), the three most effective leadership demotivators are arrogance, disrespect, and unfairness. I doubt you need me to detail out specific examples of how Musk has practiced each of these.
Managing team dynamics: Grade = C. I really don’t know how to assess this one. I’m giving Musk a C on the grounds that he has, it appears, ignored team dynamics entirely, except for when he’s laid off entire teams.
Engineering culture: Grade = F. Oh, dear. I’d really like to give Musk credit for something, but given that he’s pretty much blown up the entire workforce along with so many of the inter-staff relationships on which culture depends, I’m not sure there’s a culture left to engineer, nor anyone who cares enough about the organization to start rebuilding one.
Communication: Grade = D. Leaders have to listen – one on one and organizational listening. And they need to inform, to persuade, and to facilitate communication among people who otherwise would ignore each other.
Musk did no organizational listening before starting to gut the organization. He has taken steps to inform everyone, whether or not what he was informing them of was at all wise. He’s relied on his authority to persuade, which never works. And I have no evidence to judge whether he’s engaged in any facilitation, but I doubt it.
Bob’s last word: Were Twitter still a publicly traded corporation my last word would be a recommendation that you short the stock.
But it isn’t, and while it might be ancient history, there are lessons to be learned from ancient history. Here? Once upon a time the dominant social network was MySpace. Rupert Murdoch bought it and destroyed it. Customers, unfazed, shrugged and moved to Facebook.
I trust I don’t need to explain the parallel.
Bob’s sales pitch: Speaking of things I probably don’t need to explain, if you’re looking for a deeper view of the eight tasks of leadership, that’s what I wrote Leading IT: <Still> the Toughest Job in the World to provide.
Elon Musk hasn’t read it and look what that did to him.
Now on CIO.com’s CIO Survival Guide: “7 ways CIOs get themselves fired.” Keeping your job as CIO is tough, even when you do everything right. Here are seven ways unwary CIOs make their jobs even riskier.
A few thoughts. First, Musk didn’t invent the electric car industry; he stepped in as a VC and bought an electric car company others had created with a vision. Granted, he took over their vision and associated it with himself, but that’s little more than taking credit for a term paper when you bought it from a term paper broker.
Nor did he invent private space exploration. The first privately funded rocket launched in 1982. The first private passengers in space were in 2004 on SpaceShipOne, funded in large part by Paul Allen and designed & built by Burt Rutan. SpaceX launched its first rocket two years later. And it’s worth noting that the company almost collapsed and failed except it got a huge NASA contract to deliver stuff to the ISS.
When it comes to the grades you handed out, you pointed out that Musk only seems to understand authoritarian decision making, which is only good in a crisis. To be fair, however, he has turned everything about Twitter into a crisis, so ironically his style may be the only thing that will work until it collapses on itself.
He has that conceit, so common among people born wealthy and who managed to buy some success with that wealth, that he is the smartest guy in the room and everyone who disagrees with him must be an idiot.
It appears I was less clear than I’d thought I was. In my awesomely humble opinion, Musk invented the industries, which is different from inventing products. Put it differently, Tesla legitimized the whole concept of electric vehicles. SpaceX legitimized the idea of private-industry-centric space travel.
I think he deserves credit for both achievements. But as I say, just my perspective.
Elon Musk did not, strictly speaking, invent “the electric car industry”. In the early days of the automobile industry, internal-combustion cars shared the roads with steam cars (i.e. external combustion) and electric cars. There was a brief period when it was not at all obvious which of these three technologies would eventually win out over horse-drawn vehicles; all three were plausible possibilities at the time.
Jay Leno has a 1909 Baker Electric car in his collection, and has demonstrated it in multiple videos available on YouTube.
In Ray Bradbury’s novel, “Dandelion Wine”, there is a vignette centered on two elderly ladies and their beloved electric car. The novel is set in 1928; by that date, the electric car industry was years past its peak, but a lightly-used electric car could easily still have been in perfect working order then.
Elon Musk can properly be credited with greatly expanding and popularizing TODAY’S REVIVAL of the electric-car industry — but not with ORIGINATING the electric-car industry, which was a going concern more than 100 years previously.
My reason for giving Musk credit is that for at least a half-century prior to the Tesla there was no electric car marketplace, no consumer demand for electric cars, and no underlying battery technology or infrastructure needed for the whole concept to be credible. While there’s no way to accurately describe the “path not chosen,” I’m pretty sure that without the Tesla there still wouldn’t be an electric car marketplace.
Just my perspective.
I agree with your Musk report card.
But, your article caused me to consider Musk a bit more deeply than I had before. I realized I had seen Musk’s pattern before, namely in Vladimir Putin’s war in the Ukraine, in his annihilation of all that doesn’t conform to his vision.
I disagree that an autocrat is who you want in a crisis. An autocrat is who you want (or who you think you want) when you feel completely helpless in a situation. The autocrat tells you what to do and how to do it, in a way that destroys all else not compliant with his view.
This is not leadership.
It seems to me that you are mostly writing for people in the software and computer hardware industries. These are people industries, so autocratic leadership methods are completely dysfunctional to these industries.
As you pointed out above, Musk successfully legitimized the electric vehicle for the masses industry, and the commercial space travel industry, because there were technical and business challenges he saw and solved.
But, the Wittgenstein and Godel challenges at the heart of social media platforms need to protect society from hate speech, at their core, are neither technological nor business in nature.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, the fault lies neither in the industry, nor its tools, but in ourselves.
It appears I need to clarify. The situations in which we need an autocrat are limited to the worst of crises. The situations in which a leader needs to make a specific decision autocratically? A lot more.
An effective leader needs to know how to choose the most suitable decision style for each situation instead of choosing the one with which they’re the most comfortable. Making one autocratically is usually the best choice in a crisis; the worst choice in other situations.
I have no explanation for a bunch of what Musk is doing, and fear he is dooming a very interesting, long-troubled, unique communication medium. I agree with a number of your grades.
The fascinating thing for me is that the product most of us go to Twitter for (a big free-speech sandbox about what’s happening right now) is still working well. How can that be when he’s fired SO MANY folks, from high to low? Until we have an explanation for that, or until Twitter crashes and burns as said communication medium, we need to realize there are also other, more positive, lessons to also learn about Musk’s turn at the helm.
Of course, as you indicate, if he doesn’t figure out how to pull advertisers back in, it’s doubtful he’ll get a pittance of a return on his investment. But could no-bells-or-whistles Twitter survive, and continue to provide an informational service (as well as be a cesspool of name-calling)? We’ll see.
How it is that Twitter’s baseline service continues to work well isn’t mysterious. To understand this, go back to the pre-2008 bailout of General Motors. At the time, GM was a trainwreck that happened at 3 mph over a span of decades (in case you’re interested, re-read this: https://issurvivor.com/2021/02/08/principal-principles/ ).
One of the rules of large organizations is that they can drift for an astonishing amount of time before finally flickering out. Twitter is, at the moment, coasting. It can continue to coast for quite a long time so long as the platforms and infrastructure it runs on continue to operate.
If the rumors are true that it no longer has the engineers needed to (pardon me) keep its joint running it might flame out. Otherwise, as it finds itself competing for advertising dollars, which in turn will lead to it needing new ways to attract interesting content, expect it to continue to coast. Given the scale of its layoffs it’s hard to see how it will muster the investment needed to innovate.
I agree with most of your assessment except for the areas we can’t really know about. I observed that the moderation was never turned off but that for a short period bots and pokesters were flooding the zone in conjunction with the external effort at advertiser boycott. Upper management did have to go and there may have been personal conflict issues there. Staff layoffs seem rather careless but we don’t really know their job assignments nor what insiders may have told Musk. We are told he brought in some Tesla software engineers who may be guiding decisions.
Twitter seems to be functioning. Indeed Musk has rehired perhaps some critically needed staff. Taking over a code base developed and patched over time is quite difficult depending on how it has been maintained. Musk did discover that the blue check change was much more difficult to implement than anticipated.
If Musk can develop a Creator’s corner, walled off and monetized he may build competition for various fan sites and create revenue for Twitter. He seems to imagine a different Twitter beyond tweets. Whether he can fund that development remains to be seen.
For the areas I follow I haven’t seen much change. Some individuals like the Babylon Bee have been restored to continue their parody. There may be even greater activity as Musk creates his own buzz. I don’t see a viable alternative to Twitter yet. So only time can tell if he can “Keep the Joint Running”. (Maybe he ought to seek a consultant?)
Did you see this article in the NYT claiming that Musk did similar things to Tesla and SpaceX?
I’m not saying it means he knows what he’s doing with Twitter, but it does offer some evidence that these tactics have worked for him before.
I think this statement in the article sums up my evaluation of his using tactics that worked at Tesla and SpaceX: “Tesla and SpaceX were in earlier stages of growth when their boss whipped out his tough language and told everyone they had to go full tilt. But Twitter is a more mature company that has performed inconsistently for years.”
“Mr. Musk’s management techniques are “good start-up and growth strategy, but it is not good for building a stable company.”
Before replying I wanted to see if World Cup traffic was going to crash Twitter. It hasn’t. So far. That being said, continued traffic is a pretty low bar for declaring success. For some, the connection to Twitter may feel a important as the connection to electricity, but any failure of the grid will be noticed immediately. If Twitter fails to avoid malware hacks or data breaches, effects to its users will be noticed and felt only later.
Musk’s behavior suggests a belief that “It’s all mine, I can do what I want.” The FTC consent decree regarding privacy and security performance still applies. Although Elon seems loath to ask for advice, he should check with Zuck about what happens when you thumb your nose at the FTC.
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