What leaders can learn from Elon Musk’s outrageous Twitter offer

Elon Musk

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, is both a role model of effective leadership and an example of what not to do.

Patrick Pleul/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

  • Elon Musk’s hostile bid to buy Twitter reflects his brash leadership style, experts have said.
  • It’s a style that other CEOs can take as a case study, both aspire to and avoid.
  • CEOs should focus on their vision but avoid Musk’s abrasive approach to management.

Elon Musk on Thursday offered to buy Twitter for $43 billion, capping two turbulent weeks of back and forth with the social media giant’s executives. This decision was unexpected, unconventional and typical of Musk’s leadership style.

“It’s both shocking and classic Elon,” said David Yoffie, a leadership professor at Harvard Business School who has published research on Musk. “It reflects his extreme confidence that he can make businesses work where others fail.”

The Tesla and SpaceX CEO’s Twitter offer is his latest unorthodox move. From reinventing the auto industry and trying to colonize Mars, to flouting government laws and tweeting whatever comes to mind despite market backlash, Musk shows complete disregard for the conventions in their personal and professional interactions.

His disregard for the status quo, coupled with other key attributes, like his ability to sell his vision and solve problems in innovative ways, provides lessons for other CEOs, leadership experts said. At the same time, Musk’s raw outspokenness and abrasive way of dealing with people are warning signs of what not to do.

“Whether you love it or hate it, don’t miss the chance to sit down and watch it,” said Anna Crowley Redding, author of “Elon Musk: A Mission to Save the World.” “What he does and how he does it is fascinating.”

Tesla CEO Elon Musk speaks before unveiling the Model Y at the company's design studio in Hawthorne, California.

Musk has an incredible ability to get people on board with his vision of the future.

Jae C. Hong/AP

Think about your vision

Musk, 50, has an incredible ability to rally consumers, investors and employees behind his mission, three senior sources said. His secret is that he taps into people’s desire for inspiration, something the general public is increasingly looking for in their business leaders.

Exhibit A: He was able to secure billions of dollars in funding continuously, even though Tesla only announced its first annual profit in 2021, after 18 years in business. Exhibit B: It continues to gain global support for SpaceX despite numerous explosions.

He’s not just selling businesses, he’s selling answers to big problems that are looming over the future of humanity, Crowley Redding said.

Tesla was his answer to weaning the world off gas, and he associated green transportation with luxury. SpaceX aims to secure the future of humanity through the colonization of space – taking something usually considered a distant task reserved for government and making it a private enterprise, thus accelerating the mission.

Now he promises a new era for free speech and connectedness. “Twitter has tremendous potential,” Musk said in a letter to company management. “I’ll unblock it.”

“He’s an expert at defining the mission, communicating the mission, and getting your employees to buy into that mission,” said Crowley Redding, who studied Musk for four years. “You’re not going to work for an Elon Musk company and sit down, walk in and time it. You’re going to work harder than you’ve ever worked in your life because the stakes are so high.”

The takeaway for CEOs and future leaders is to tap into your vision, your purpose, and be clear to all stakeholders about it, said Vitaliy Katsenelson, CEO of Denver-based investment firm IMA. and author of the leadership book, “Soul in the Game.”

“Musk has a soul in the game,” said Katsenelson, who also wrote “Tesla, Elon Musk, and the Electric Vehicle Revolution.” “You can see it and feel it. He puts everything he has into what he works on. Pouring it all into your work is something leaders should copy from Musk, Katsenelson added.

The tech visionary is also convincing people to take the long-term bet on him, said Harvard’s Yoffie, author of the leadership book, “Strategy Rules.”

“He is the most visionary CEO on the planet today,” Yoffie said. “He’s inspired enough confidence to finally be able to do these incredible things. That’s what gives financial markets permission to achieve these long-term goals.”

Elon Mush holds a Tesla-branded hard hat.

Musk credited first principles thinking with his success.

Christophe Gateau/picture alliance via Getty Image

See things from another angle

In engineering and physics, there’s a way of thinking called “first principles thinking,” and Musk attributed it to his success.

First principles thinking is basically thinking about how you would solve a given problem if you were an alien who has never seen or heard of the problem before. Disregard how things have been done in the past and discard all previous assumptions so you can start from scratch. Embracing this mindset has driven Musk’s hiring decisions and what he demands of his employees.

Imagine, for example, designing car door handles one way throughout your career and then being asked to come up with something completely different. Then, satisfied with your new design, you are told to delete it and create a completely new one for the next model. Such is life under the world’s greatest visionary.

“He wanted people to say, ‘Well, we’ve always done things this way because of reason X, but maybe we could do things differently if we don’t consider Y'” Tim Higgins , author of “Power Play: Tesla, Elon Musk and the Bet of the Century,” said. “It was kind of a startup mentality.”

Elon Musk smoking weed

Musk smoked weed on a podcast.

The Joe Rogan/YouTube Experience

Be authentic, but only up to a point

Musk has done things that most CEOs would be fired for, some more serious than others. He smoked weed while recording a podcast with Joe Rogan, and in the same year called a rescue diver during the 2018 Thai cave rescue mission a “pedo”, an insult for a pedophile (he apologized later).

He also launched a legal battle with the Securities Exchange Commission after he tweeted that he had “secured funding” to take Tesla private at $420 a share, which Musk at one point said was a weed joke. In 2017, SpaceX released a compilation video poking fun at its many rocket explosions and failures.

“There are clearly things he does that most people won’t be able to get away with in their normal day-to-day careers,” Higgins said.

What makes Musk so engaging — and bulletproof — is his authenticity, Crowley Redding said. Musk has built a reputation for being unapologetically himself, something few image-conscious CEOs can pull off. For example, she noted that Musk’s answers in interviews don’t appear to be scripted.

She also said CEOs shouldn’t replicate some of the craziest things Musk has said and done, but it wouldn’t hurt most leaders to be a little more improvisational to sound relatable.

“CEOs often focus on projecting confidence, perfection, and balance at the expense of identifying the problem they’re trying to solve and solving the problem,” Crowley Redding said. “Elon doesn’t care if people think he’s perfect.”

Elon Musk's Axel Springer Award

Musk is reported as an abrasive leader.


Know how and when to break the rules

Musk is desperate for answers to big problems, so he seeks the most innovative solutions. Many times that means he’s breaking the rules or deviating from convention — for better or for worse — Crowley Redding said.

While breaking the rules has been a driver of innovation in his businesses, it has also led Musk to find himself embroiled in a number of messy public legal battles.

Musk is currently facing issues with the SEC over potential violations of securities laws for filing notice of his Twitter stake later than required. In 2017, the National Labor Relations Board found him guilty of violating labor laws for his tweets threatening employees about union organizing efforts.

“He tends to be reckless,” said Harvard Business School’s Yoffie.

Musk is also breaking some of the rules about how executives should treat employees.

“He has a really good eye for hiring talent, but the problem over time is that he doesn’t always listen to that talent and he burns it out very quickly,” Higgins said. “They either leave because they abandoned him, or because they burned out for him, or because he burned out for them.”

There have been numerous reports of stress- and exhaustion-related injuries at Tesla and generalized burnout.

“The worst thing is the toxicity created by Elon – unrealistic stretch goals with no realistic plan to achieve them,” a former manager who worked directly with Musk told Insider. “It’s a culture where if you don’t have a solution to a problem and that problem isn’t resolved in a few days or a week or two, you’re gone.”

Yoffie compared Musk’s leadership style to late Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs, who was allegedly mean to employees on several occasions. “No doubt he could be more empathetic,” Yoffie said of Musk. “Like Jobs, Musk did things that are hallmarks of bad leadership, especially treating people very badly.”

Higgins, the author and Wall Street Journal reporter, agreed. “The question I think is, ‘How long can Elon get away with some of this stuff? “”

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