Elon Musk: the great return of the autocratic CEO
His reputation as CEO is legendary: he dislikes contradiction and thinks he knows better than his employees what customers want. He micro-managed, firing his engineers at the slightest suspicion or criticism, wanting to know what his troops were doing on and off the job. “His paranoia and suspicion of everything around him caused his relationship with his men to move from a happy cooperation to a fear”said an observer.
Elon Musk? No, Henry Ford at the beginning of the 20th century, when his Ford T was a dazzling success. Above all, history preserves the man’s undeniable genius, preferring to forget that his autocratic style led him to refuse to embrace change. When he died in 1947, the manufacturer was in trouble, and it took the skill of an entire generation of innovators, led by his grandson Henry Ford II, to get him out of trouble.
Musk admired by bosses 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 dictators captains of industry. Their style, to a certain degree, matches the DNA of the American dream: risk-taking, uniqueness, the genius of the lone hero, the hatred of conformity and consensus…
On another level, of course, they represent everything you can hate in an autocrat: cruelty, lack of empathy, distrust of others, the certainty of being right – among others. Musk does not have the odious anti-Semitic and racist traits of Henry Ford, but he perfectly embodies the ambivalence of Americans towards the absolutist leader.
This is especially true since its acquisition of Twitter. In Silicon Valley and elsewhere, little music of admiration has been heard among business leaders: Musk speaks loudly what they think, and he takes decisions they never dreamed of making without complexity.
Also readElon Musk’s (genius) recipe for torpedoing “meetings” in clubs…
They have long admired his incredible ambition, his willingness to “break the mold”. “Musk has set goals that are almost impossible to achieve […] he leads in a way that challenges what people are capable of. Seeing his vision come to fruition 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 site, which details “4 Ways to Apply Elon Musk’s Leadership Style”. It is the same admiration that went to a Steve Jobs: the one who was not satisfied with what existed, who wanted to go further.
Changing the balance of power among employees
But the admiration for Musk now goes beyond this. After decades of fat cows, in which they were admired as demigods, the CEOs of Silicon Valley and elsewhere found themselves under a barrage of criticism from the “toxic culture” of the hi-tech world, a white male culture, arrogant, narcissistic, rapacious, not very open to “DEI” (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) which many summarize in one word, “woke” (“awake”), a term that Musk continues to use as an insult.
When the CEO of Twitter discovers “Stay Woke” T-Shirts in a company closet and replaces them, hilariously, with new “Stay @ Work” T-Shirts with identical graphics, these CEOs rejoice!
They have another reason to rally behind him: Musk fires employees without picking up gloves, he demands from his troops full dedication and maximum work intensity, even putting beds in the tree -company office for those who spend their days and nights there. In other words, he is the Boss.
Done, the whims of geek overpaid and variable! David Marcus, the former CEO of Paypal, tweetrejoices: “It looks like the days of complaining about the quality of toilet paper to the CEO of a large technology company in a closed-door meeting in front of thousands of people (True story. This is really happened) are over.” This is good: weighed down by the falling price of its profits and its shares, CEOs are determined to change the balance of power among their employees.
How far will imitation go? It all depends on what Musk can do as the head of Twitter. The case seems to be a bad start, and the admiration of business leaders for a Tesla or a SpaceX does not translate, at this moment, to Twitter. Who knows? Musk can pull off the impossible, and double the worship. But in the meantime, his autocratic methods are doing a lot of damage.
despotism in management
First is the flight of talent, the mass exodus of employees, some of whom are the best in their sector. Encouraged to embrace the culture of Musk, many prefer to go to the open sea. Like Yoel Roth, Twitter’s chief security officer, who left the company in November, who believes Musk ran Twitter “like a dictator”. Then there are the CEO’s ever-increasing slippages, which are becoming embarrassing even to his “anti-woke” admirers.
His calls (“disgusting” according to the White House) to prosecute Anthony Fauci, the boss of the fight against Covid-19 under Trump and Biden. His slander against Yoel Roth, certainly, accused of having “encouraged the sexualization of children” in his doctoral thesis. His intolerance of criticism and his hypocrisy about the sacred “freedom of speech” when he shut down the Twitter account of a boy who was tracking the movements of his private plane. His decision, brutal and without explanation, on December 15, to suspend the accounts of journalists critical of him.
Or finally, and perhaps most importantly, his decision to reinstate banned users, including 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 the era of Ford, countless management gurus since then have lavishly detailed the flaws of managerial despotism. In a famous essay, Marshall Goldsmith, one of the most respected management experts, detailed 20 pitfalls of leaders who get caught in the intoxication of their success.
Some, random: “The pointless sarcasm and remarks that we think are making us laugh”; “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 innocent people who are usually trying to help us”. Our favorite? “An overwhelming need to be ‘me’: Extolling our faults as virtues simply because they are we are.”
This bestseller was published in 2007. The story doesn’t say if Musk read it.