His reputation as CEO is legendary: he doesn’t like contradictions and believes he knows better than his employees what customers want. He micromanages, fires his engineers at the slightest suspicion or criticism, wants to know what his troops are doing on and off the job. “His paranoia and suspicion of everything around him caused his relationship with his staff to shift from one of happy cooperation to one of fear”notes an observer. Elon Musk? No, Henry Ford at the beginning of XXe century, when his Ford T was a dazzling success. Above all, history has preserved the man’s undeniable genius, preferring to forget that his autocratic style had made him refuse to embrace change. When he died in 1947, the manufacturer was in dire straits, and it took the skill of a whole generation of innovators, led by his grandson Henry Ford II, to pull him out of the rut.
Musk admired by executives around the world
Henry Ford, Thomas Watson (IBM), Steve Jobs and now Elon Musk: America has always had a soft spot for its autocratic CEOs, its dictatorial captains of industry. Their style, on some level, matches the DNA of the American Dream: risk-taking, quirkiness, the genius of the lone hero, distaste for conformity and consensus… On another level, of course, they embody everything you can hate in an autocrat: brutality, lack of empathy, distrust of others, the certainty of being right—among others.
Musk doesn’t have Henry Ford’s despicable anti-Semitic and racist traits, but he perfectly embodies Americans’ ambivalence toward the absolutist leader. This is especially true since the takeover of Twitter. In Silicon Valley and elsewhere, there has been some music of admiration among business leaders: Musk says what they think out loud, and he makes the decisions they dare not make without complex ones.
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They had long admired his incredible ambition, his willingness to “break the mold”. “Musk has set himself goals that are almost impossible to achieve […] he leads in a way that challenges what humans are capable of accomplishing. Seeing his vision become a reality is both inspiring and motivating. It makes some people want to rack their brains and tackle the world’s biggest problems with the same tenacity.”summarizes the Leaders website, which provides details “4 Ways to Apply Elon Musk’s Leadership Style”. It is the same admiration that went to a Steve Jobs: the one who is not satisfied with what exists, who wants to go much further.
Change in the balance of power with the employees
But admiration for Musk now extends far beyond that. After decades of fat cows being admired as demigods, CEOs in Silicon Valley and elsewhere have found themselves under a barrage of criticism from the “toxic culture” of the high-tech world, a culture of white males, arrogant, narcissistic , predatory, not very open to “DE” (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion), which many sum up in one word, “wake” (“awake”), a term that Musk constantly uses as an insult.
When the CEO of Twitter discovers “Stay Woke” T-shirts in a company’s closet and hysterically replaces them with a new identical “Stay @ Work” T-shirt, these CEOs cheer! They have another reason to rally behind him: Musk fires employees without taking off gloves, he demands absolute dedication and maximum work intensity from his troops, and goes so far as to install beds in the company’s headquarters for those who spend their days and nights there. In short, he’s the boss.
Done, whimsical nerd overpaid and capricious! David Marcus, former CEO of Paypal, tweetcheering: “It seems that the days of complaining about the quality of toilet paper to the CEO of a major tech company in a closed meeting in front of thousands of people are over (true story. This really happened).” That’s good: weighed down by the fall in the price of its profits and its shares, the CEOs are determined to change the balance of power with their employees.
How far will emulation go? Everything will depend on how Musk performs as head of Twitter. The case seems to have gotten off to a bad start, and corporate executives’ admiration for a Tesla or a SpaceX doesn’t translate to Twitter, at least at the moment. Who knows? Musk can remove the impossible and the adoration will double. But in the meantime, his autocratic methods are doing great damage.
First there is the talent drain, the mass exit of employees, some of whom were the best in their sector. Urged to embrace the culture of musk, many preferred to take to the open sea. Like Yoel Roth, Twitter’s security chief who left the company in November, believed Musk was running Twitter “like a dictator”. Then there are the ever-increasing slip-ups by the CEO, which are becoming embarrassing even to his “anti-woke” admirers.
His call (“disgusting” according to the White House) to prosecute Anthony Fauci, the head of the fight against Covid-19 under Trump and Biden. His slanderous insinuations against Yoel Roth, precisely, accused of having “encouraged the sexualization of children” in his doctoral thesis. His intolerance of criticism and his hypocrisy over the sacred “freedom of speech” when he shut down the Twitter account of a young guy who was tracking the movements of his private jet. His decision, brutal and without explanation, on December 15, to suspend the accounts of journalists who criticized him. Or finally, and perhaps most importantly, his decision to reinstate banned users, including Donald Trump, and the explosion of anti-Semitic, racist, violent messages on the platform. All this is a lot.
And that’s not all. We are not in Ford’s era, since then countless management gurus have detailed the flaws of managerial despotism. In a famous essay, Marshall Goldsmith, one of the most respected management experts, described the 20 pitfalls of leaders who become trapped by their success.
A few, at random: “The senseless sarcasm and cutting remarks that we think make us witty”, “the need to show people that we are smarter than they think”; “the use of emotional volatility as a management tool”; “the misguided need to attack the innocent people who normally try to help us”. Our favorite? “An Excessive Need to Be ‘Me’: Extolling Our Faults as Virtues Simply Because They Are Who We Are.” This bestseller was published in 2007. The story does not say whether Musk read it.