While Elon Musk’s entrepreneurial vision may inspire many, his Twitter “rebuild” above all reflects leadership from a different age.
Since Elon Musk took the reins of Twitter, his actions continue to surprise and even displease many. I’m a part of it. The reason is simple. I teach leadership at SBS-EM and see what it’s like Elon Musk’s controversial leadership goes against the principles resulting from research in this field.
Elon Musk’s leadership model could threaten Twitter and its values.
I admit that Elon Musk can inspire as a leader, and his vision of innovation-driven entrepreneurship is the stuff of dreams. Indeed, many students follow his example when asked who the leaders are who inspire them. But leadership is not just about inspiring others. Five other principles taught to students that the Musk model misses.
- Leadership is the ability to be flexible, to adapt to the organizational context.
There is no single leadership style. A good leader has a wide repertoire of leadership styles (charismatic, directive, participative…) that must be adapted and shaped to each organizational context. If we analyze what Elon Musk is doing on Twitter, he wants to run the social network as he leads Tesla or SpaceX. His style is increasingly autocratic, directive and central about taking risks. Just because it works elsewhere doesn’t mean it will work on Twitter.
- Leadership is a collective responsibility, not a personal opportunity.
After firing many executives and people in charge, Elon Musk became the sole master of Twitter. It shows more and more narcissistic leadership that focuses too much on their own personality and too little on Twitter growth. He asserted himself as a strong leader who took control and made radical decisions on his own. Although his style is admired by some, studies show that this style does not benefit the organization in the long run.
- Leadership is exercised with others, not against them, to achieve change.
Of course, Twitter is in dire financial straits and needs to change. But Elon Musk does the opposite of what organizational change models suggest. We must cooperate, we must build trust, persuading that change is needed for sustainable transformation that everyone is willing to invest in. Scaring away the most skilled workers and the most loyal companies won’t help Mask restore his image on Twitter.
- The leader must ensure social responsibility outside the circulation.
Many now agree that our leaders need to be more accountable and more attuned to our society’s sustainability challenges. The well-being of workers, respect for their rights and working conditions are part of this. Overnight layoffs, employees under pressure to break the law announced by email are just a few examples of Musk’s model. While he continues to impress with his ability to quickly generate numbers, he is clearly not a model of responsible leadership.
- The leader’s vision should enhance the organization and not oppose it.
Elon Musk claims to be committed to freedom of expression when he decides to limit moderation of Twitter content. But studies show that without basic rules and principles, the most extreme and dominant positions will emerge. This will certainly limit the freedom of expression of those who are already less vocal in the public space. Some companies have realized the danger and decided to withdraw from Twitter due to the risk of being associated with violent or extremist content.
Elon Musk’s leadership model could threaten Twitter and its values. But just because Musk owns Twitter doesn’t mean he remains the leader.
As for me, I found it appropriate to use it as a counterexample to teach my students about leadership. And I strongly believe and hope that other leadership models will emerge in the years to come.
By Claudia Thomas, Professor of Social Psychology and Organizational Behavior at Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management (ULB).