Musk’s Unkind Leadership Style Bucks the Trend

Elon Musk’s brief stewardship of Twitter has harkened back to Bad Bass tropes.

To call Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter chaotic is an understatement, and things are too messy at the tech platform for me to predict its future. But Musk’s actions over the past month have struck me as a depressing counterpoint to the workplace kindness trend I’ve enjoyed researching over the past half-decade. 

Kindness abounds these days, in spite of the many harrowing challenges facing the world. And it’s entered a place that might surprise those familiar with the not-entirely-undeserved trope of the horrible boss and exploitative company: the workplace. 

While Michael O’Malley and I were writing a book on humane workplaces, we learned that employees often yearn for kindness more than they do for raises. Business leaders also benefit from kindness since altruism, while selfless, rewards the kind person with a sense of having acted decently. 

In the three weeks since Musk closed the $44 billion Twitter deal it’s been tough to spot much decency in his moves, aside from his purported yen to democratize the platform and make it a purer outlet for untramelled free speech (the latter being a fundamental American value, but one whose potential dangers the internet has wildly inflated). Musk began his tenure by hastily calling the almost entirely remote workforce back into the office…and then sorta backtracking on that. He cozied up to some famous Twitter users and picked fights with others. His statements on charging a monthly subscription price for “verified-users” were all over the map. 

Then he laid off half of the company’s 7,500 employees before this week issuing an ultimatum to those who remained: pledge your “hardcore” allegiance to Twitter 2.0 or take a hike and three months severance pay. By some estimates, 75% of workers chose the hike. Given the size of the exodus, Twitter users and tech observers are right to question Twitter’s very survival.
I’ve written before about being of mixed mind regarding Twitter and other social media’s distorting and impoverishing affect on actual media outlets. If and when things calm down at Twitter 2.0, speculation can proceed on its relationship with journalism. For now, I lament Musk setting an example for even a few impressionable souls of the modern boss resorting to a taunting, abrasive and mercurial management style in an era of more enlightened leadership. 

Scatterbrained messaging and outlandish ultimatums, all playing out in the public eye, make me wonder if there’s something to the theory that Musk is intentionally destroying Twitter, a favorite among progressives, from within. Then again, sheer incompetence could be getting in his way of what Twitter founder Jack Dorsey called his “mission to extend the light of consciousness.” 

The tech sector isn’t known for its warm and cuddly founders and executives. Yet the industry has played a huge role in changing the modern workplace and perhaps making it something fewer people dread. It’s too late for Musk. I only hope the leaders of innovative companies know that kind management is in itself an innovation worth emulating.