News Analysis

What Elon Musk is doing to Twitter teaches us something important

by Dan Byrne on Nov 25, 2022

What Elon Musk is doing to Twitter, since he bought the social media firm, can teach business leaders a very important lesson. If one big ego is allowed to operate at will and without ‘critical friends’ to help with important decisions, a company can dissolve very quickly. 

When he bought Twitter, the world’s richest man boasted he would transform how people communicate and safeguard free speech. 

Following his triumphant march through Twitter’s doors, kitchen sink in hand, his leadership quickly fractured Twitter’s foundations and exposed the cracks that were already there.

What followed was an in-depth lesson on how not to handle a business takeover.

Quick recap

In October, after six months of back-and-forth, Elon Musk finalised a deal to purchase Twitter for $44 billion. 

Since taking ownership, Musk has fired the entire board and several key leadership staff within the organisation. He has also overseen layoffs of more than half the company’s global workforce. 

Some staff, such as human resources leader Kathleen Pacini and “head of trust and safety” Yoel Roth, have resigned of their own volition.  

Musk has also announced significant policy changes, such as banning unlabelled parody accounts and the introduction of subscription payments for ‘blue-tick’ status.

Is the takeover going well?

Twitter feels increasingly alive

Elon Musk Tweet, 13th November 2022

Musk’s public positivity certainly isn’t in doubt, but does that accurately reflect what’s going on behind the scenes?

Everyone is watching, and experts will differ in opinion. But this week, Musk was forced to announce that Twitter faced a real threat of bankruptcy and that he had to sell over $4 billion worth of Tesla shares to save it. 

You would have difficulty arguing that the takeover is going well, considering something like that. 

In addition, he is facing the threat of a mass exodus of advertisers – worried about his no-exceptions stance on free speech and its potential to encourage hate speech. Musk has had to reassure these advertisers in the last few days also.

So what are Musk’s leadership failings?

Before anything else, his failings are rooted in his desire for a one-person show.

He fired the strong voices around him

In sacking the board and several senior management figures, Musk got rid of the people who would have spoken up when it counted. 

It’s true that some CEOs of private companies prefer weak boards that will fall in line, and Musk is one of them. Is he entitled to run things this way? Of course he is, but at what cost?

Having no strong voices means having no checks against your leadership. Bad business decisions go unopposed because the people who are supposed to speak out are long gone. 

In the absence of other strong voices, only Musk’s will win out, even if he hasn’t thoroughly thought through a decision.

He’s shaking things up too fast for many stakeholders

Musk had always said that he wanted to restore free speech as part of his Twitter acquisition – to the point where former US President Donald Trump would be invited back to the platform after a two-year break. 

Trump was kicked off for persistent misinformation and incitement of violence. 

Although he isn’t back yet, Twitter has seen a surge in uncensored hateful and racist language since Musk took over. Advertisers are worried about being connected to such things, and Musk is now racing to win them back to his side. 

It’s a risky move, especially so early in his tenure. 

He’s getting too strict with workers

Or at least the ones who survived his mass firing.

In an age where remote working has become common, Musk remains stubbornly against it. He has informed all remaining Twitter employees that they must be at their office desks for 40 hours per week, with few exceptions

It mirrors a similar message to Tesla employees some months ago. Still, it will do nothing to help his relationship workers who, post-pandemic, are used to a hybrid working model. 

He’s already risking conflict with lawmakers on this issue – for example in Ireland, where the government is reviewing proposed legislation on a “right to request home-working”.

In summary

Since taking over Twitter, Elon Musk has made plenty of enemies, a fair few sceptics, and a tiny amount of new friends. 

A core sign of good leadership is listening to those around you who shine with experience and skill. Musk has done the opposite – getting rid of most people who could help and leaving the remainder with little choice but to quit on their own. 

He now has no council – no source of advice except loyal business followers. 

Does that spell good governance? When the word ‘bankruptcy’ is mentioned, probably not.

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