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Genius or Chief Twit? – Leadership lessons from the Musk Mayhem

The new owner of Twitter, Elon Musk, has made some characteristically big moves in his first weeks, but how do they stack up against the latest science and practice of leadership? 

On the positive side, Musk’s approach is fast, bold, and decisive – traits often lauded in the corporate world to the point where its seductive genius sometimes blinds us. 

Musk acted swiftly. He fired half of the company’s 7,500 staff, scrapped a work-from-home policy, and demanded a ‘hardcore’ commitment to working “long hours at high intensity” or else depart the company. One thousand two hundred talented employees chose to leave.  A class action lawsuit has been filed, the office temporarily closed, and Musk faces pressure from investors over Twitter’s potential demise.

“I guess the big question is will Musk’s swift actions cast him as Genius or Chief Twit? The jury is still out, but here are four very valuable leadership lessons, backed by science, that Musk himself may have missed,” explains Pia Lee, Work Whisperer and CEO of Australian tech start-up Squadify.

Read the room

Action was indeed needed to rectify Twitter’s financial loses and weak management. However, Musk’s actions signalled a cultural misreading of a working world that is now largely hybrid and able to deliver consistent results in challenging circumstances.

A Stanford University study recently found that working from home increases productivity by 13% and has also reduced attrition by 60%. Hybrid is here to stay and the times of 40-hour weeks in the office are in the past. Face to face needs to be valuable, intentional and with a clear need to achieve an outcome. Building the communication for a compelling why, rather than creating an ultimatum, will tap into discretionary goodwill and latent potential.

Whilst Musk’s ‘hardcore’ requirements may have matched the mindset of those at Tesla who were all working for an ideal, a new world and something truly cutting edge, this approach to the ‘room’ at Twitter felt foreign and resulted in a mass exodus of talent.

Leaders don’t have to have all the answers

Research on effective leadership consistently views that autocratic styles often fail against more collaborative approaches. These seek a diverse range of views and can maximise decision-making.  Musk’s ‘from the hip’ decisions on the Blue Tick and content moderation have already negatively impacted celebrity presence and advertising revenues.

Musk is renowned for shutting down opinions that differ from his own. Asking more quality questions and resisting the compulsion to ‘tell’ as an apparent show of strength is a key leadership lesson here. 

Being a leader vs Demonstrating Leadership

Musk’s actions also define the difference between being a leader and demonstrating leadership –quite different things and mutually exclusive. A leader may be seen as rank, title, or authority – whilst leadership is a set of behaviours and skills that inspire others to follow your direction (something Musk seems to have failed at thus far with Twitter). Striking the right balance between task and people and the ‘doing’ of action and the ‘being’ or behaviours requires qualities of awareness and humility, as well as a number of trusted others who will give honest feedback and help avoid potential pitfalls.

Feeing psychologically safe is an employee right

Leadership science tells us that the foundation of delivering results is something called ‘psychological safety’. Firstly, named by US academic Professor Amy Edmondson, this quality of an organisation is based on the employee’s belief that they won’t be subjected to ridicule, rejection or retribution if they make a mistake. Musk’s demand that “only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade” will be seen by many as an untenable ultimatum. Talent will depart, and often into the arms of competing platforms. 

From working with over 20,000 team members, Squadify, a team acceleration platform, found that high-performing teams value and focus on ensuring that they are listening to each other, providing a safe place to share their ideas that are positive and constructive and where the team willingly learns from failures in a ‘no blame’  environment.

It’s clearly a ‘we not me’ game, even if you are a billionaire.

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Pia Lee

Pia Lee

Pia Lee, AKA the Work Whisperer, is the founder of Squadify, an Australian tech start-up with a mission to address leadership and team challenges and to help leaders and their teams navigate, connect and thrive in this new world of work. She has spent three decades working with Fortune 500 businesses and leaders worldwide to maximise how they work. She gained her Masters of Coaching Psychology at the University of Sydney Business School and is a co-host of the popular weekly podcast, ‘We not Me’ which explores how humans connect to get extraordinary things achieved together.

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