APU Everyday Scholar Podcast

The Ups and Downs of Elon Musk and His Leadership Style

Podcast by Dr. Bjorn Mercer, DMA, Department Chair, Communication and World Languages and
Cynthia Gentile, J.D., SHRM-CPFaculty Member, Dr. Wallace E. Boston School of Business and
Dr. Linda C. Ashar, J.D.Faculty Member, Dr. Wallace E. Boston School of Business

Billionaire. Genius. Visionary. Elon Musk is well known for his business achievements, but his leadership leaves something to be desired. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to APU’s Dr. Linda Ashar and Dr. Cynthia Gentile about this polarizing figure.

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Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and today we’re talking to Cynthia Gentile and Linda Ashar about Elon Musk and his leadership style. Welcome Linda and Cynthia.

Cynthia Gentile: Thank you for having me.

Linda Ashar: Thank you.

Bjorn Mercer: Fascinating conversation. Elon is in the news all the time, and because he’s there, because he’s so rich and influential, he is someone to talk about, to analyze and to criticize. And so, the first question is for Linda. Can you provide us a glimpse into Elon?

Linda Ashar: I think many people think they know about Elon Musk. In many respects, I think he remains an enigma just by virtue of who he is. And to understand a little bit about Elon Musk or anybody like him in the public eye, I think you gotta go back to how he started and a little bit about who he is. And he’s been very candid about that in his own words, speaking in various interviews over the years. He did not have a happy childhood. People discount that because of financial security, but that’s only a small piece of his background. He was severely bullied as a child. He did not have a happy home life. His father was at the very least emotionally abusive, according to Elon. And Elon himself has said, “I was raised by books.” He lived in books throughout his childhood, and was very much a savant all through his childhood and as we see him now.

He has said that at the age of 13, he was heavily into reading philosophies such as Nietschze and other nihilistic type of philosophers. He didn’t stay in that realm of reading, but we can see that that type of reading would have some formation of thought. He had a dark childhood in many respects, but he’s a thinker. He has said such things as the need to embrace change, things like persistence, taking risk, having control of his environment; and everything that he does is very important to him. He embraces failure. He see failure as not a problem. It’s an option for growth and learning how to do something new and different. His view of how to do the things that he does is from an engineering and technical type of mindset. It’s how to get things done, how to grow. He likes challenges, and we see that of course in the things that he’s done.

I mean, he wants to establish a community on Mars. He’s a visionary. Where there is a blind spot in all of that is how he sees people in his world. And I think they’re mainly, for want of a better description, they are tools. They are part of the world of what he needs to get things done. He says that he likes to have feedback. He wants to know where things are wrong so that they can be fixed. And yet we see him responding badly to personal criticism of things that he does. So, there is that aspect of feedback that he doesn’t like. And I think that’s because from the things that he says, it interferes with his getting where he wants to go; because he’s very driven. So, in a nutshell, that’s the kind of world that Elon lives in. And because of his financial abilities, he doesn’t have to be concerned about the day-to-day challenges that most people have. I don’t believe that he has the need or the ability to relate to those.

He uses his financial ability to achieve these greater visionary goals that he has. And if something doesn’t work, well, that’s fine, on to the next thing. Does that make sense?

Bjorn Mercer: It does. When you hear about somebody’s background, everybody’s background, their youth, how they grew up, where they grew up, is always complicated. And I think when people look at Elon, they see billionaire, one of the richest people in the world. Brilliant. And they think, well, of course everything must have been fine, but it is more complex than that. And it’s also difficult because it’s hard to say, well, everything that occurred to him and happened to him and his youth is then equaling what he’s doing as an adult. People are more complex than that. And so, thank you for a really great glimpse into Elon. And transitioning to Cynthia, can you describe some of Elon’s leadership style that we see, of course from the outside, not from the inside of his corporations?

Cynthia Gentile: Sure. So, Linda’s discussion of Elon as a person, as a child is really informative as we start to look at his leadership style. As Linda said, some do consider Musk to be a visionary, a genius, but his recent takeover of Twitter I think calls some of those superlatives into question. So, if we’re being generous, Musk is an authoritative leader who I think seeks to motivate and inspire his employees, but his emphasis is on them following his lead. He’s not a collaborative leader, at least as an outsider looking in. I lean more towards thinking of Musk, particularly as it relates to his time at Twitter as an authoritarian leader. And of course, the two sound similar, but I think the lived reality of working for an authoritarian leader couldn’t be more different. So, authoritarian leaders take total control over decisions and exert absolute control over their subordinates.

So, I think that we can see some demonstrations of this just in the public facing interactions that Musk has had with his employees or in some cases his former employees. I think authoritarian leadership can be useful in some industries where perhaps failure to align with very specific goals can be costly or even dangerous. But in nearly all other cases, authoritarians tend to burn bridges and ultimately burned through talent. So, one example of that is a recent spate of tweets where Musk has interacted with a former employee whose name is Haraldur Thorleifsson. He goes by the name Halli. So, I will continue to refer to him as Halli. Halli is a 45-year-old designer from Iceland who was born with muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair and has used a wheelchair for about two decades. There is an interaction that occurred recently between Musk and Halli where it’s possible that Musk was really taking a stab at being sort of snarky and funny, but it hasn’t served him very well.

So, Twitter acquired Halli’s design company in 2021 about a year before Musk acquired Twitter. The acquisition of Halli’s design company was very lucrative for Halli, and he became somewhat of a national hero for structuring the financial aspects of the Twitter deal in a manner that subjected him to higher than typical tax rates. He spoke publicly about wanting to support the Icelandic healthcare system and education systems because he’s benefited from those. He’s now one of Iceland’s highest taxpayers and was actually named Iceland’s person of the year for his many philanthropic efforts. So, all this is just to give some context around why Musk picked a pretty poor punching bag this week when he went after Halli on Twitter. The crux of that story is that Halli assumed that he’d been fired from Twitter when he was no longer able to log into his accounts, but he wasn’t able to get any confirmation of his employment status at Twitter for several days.

So eventually he tweeted directly at Musk to ask about his employment status, and Musk immediately accused Halli of doing no work and then using his disability as an excuse for this lack of productivity. Halli responded with kind of a detailed description of his disability and the accommodations that he used while employed by Twitter. So, this kind of sets the stage for many different legal concerns that come up around this exchange to say the least. Title VII of the ADA applies here. US companies can be held liable for terminating a disabled employee based only on that disability, even if the employee is not a US citizen. Twitter would be required to engage in a process with Halli that’s both interactive and protracted, where the employee and the employer attempt to provide reasonable accommodations to allow the employee to continue working. The ADA also forbids an employer from publicly disclosing an employee’s disability status to any third party, let alone the entire world. It’s fairly clear that that disclosure saying that Halli did no “actual work” and used his disability as an excuse is pretty damning evidence against Musk on both counts.

Bjorn Mercer: It is. And just from everything you said, there’s a lot to unpack just from a simple communication perspective, which is well, from a corporate perspective also, if an employee wants to know their status, you respond to them immediately. You don’t take a while. One thing that Elon seems to have a problem with is getting into these Twitter fights, but Cynthia as a leader, as someone whose words can move the markets and the stock of his companies, why does Elon seem to continue to get into these Twitter fights when there’s zero reason why any of these have to happen?

Cynthia Gentile: Yeah, I think that’s a question for the ages. There’s real empirical evidence that when he does this, it is affecting his literal bottom line, but he does still continue to engage in this way. The why I can’t necessarily address other than in my view of him as a leader, he expects strict compliance with the rules and regulations he’s put in place as the employer. When he sees or perceives a deviation from that, he is ready to engage regardless of the impact it might have on the stock prices or in the case of Twitter, his actual just personal investment.

Linda Ashar: I might add here that all fits in with his view of failure is not a problem to him. If something doesn’t align with what he wants, and it doesn’t work. Okay. Kevin Loria and Jake Cantor wrote something in Business Insider, and I’m going to read this quote because I think it’s very pertinent to what Cynthia said and to your question, Bjorn. “It’s clear that Musk is clearly not a fan of meetings, bureaucracy, hierarchy or any system that impedes immediate communication. He prefers people apply common sense to the task at hand. And if employees don’t meet his expectations, he can be ruthless.” Which means that he’s not concerned about how employees, and this is me talking now, that employees’ view of how he’s seeing what they do or how they react to what he says, as important. And he doesn’t have any empathy for his actions or his rules for their effect on his employees, or others for that matter. It’s just not in his world to be concerned about that.

Cynthia Gentile: Right. It’s as if the actual legal exposure that he may have stepped right into is sort of irrelevant. And I mean there may be defenses here that kind of go towards a claim that Halli’s disability was already well known. Musk wasn’t necessarily revealing it for the first time, but there is kind of a pattern in practice of behavior here. To quickly note that there was or is a class action suit that was brought late last year from former Twitter employees claiming that Musk’s mandate that employees entirely stop working from home and commit to “long hours at high intensity,” ultimately discriminates against disabled employees. And this is actually not unique to Twitter, but a blanket rule that all employees must return to the physical workplace can be seen as a violation in some situations, a violation of the ADA, because some employees may be able to sustain a claim for reasonable accommodation that includes working from home. So, he doesn’t have apparently the empathetic capabilities to kind of forecast out how the policies he puts in place may affect his workforce. And there’s a pattern and practice of that that’s pretty evident at Twitter.

Bjorn Mercer: That totally makes sense. We are speculating of course, and we’re going on news reports and there’s a lot out there because Elon’s constantly in the news, and it makes me think of one thing he wrote or he said, where if there’s a meeting that you feel like is unnecessary, just leave. Which I think is a great idea. However, as an employee, you can’t really do that all the time because if you’re in a meeting with a bunch of people and with leadership and if you just decide to leave, well, where did they go? And if they feel the meeting is important, then you have to be there. So, you can see how a lot of his thoughts and ideas are clouded from always being on top. Now, being on top from my perspective means that you’re always thinking about the endless amount of side effects, unintended consequences that might occur from your behaviors.

And this might sound really naive and almost childlike, but I always perceive things as it’s always better to be kind than to be right. And in the sense we should always try to empathize with people because sometimes in our drive to be right, to be correct, to justify our actions, we might then have just a road full of bodies of people we’ve trampled over. And in that sense, we might be right, but we might get there in a very, very difficult and messy way, and you can still get there by being kind. So, do you think that his lack… Is it okay for me to say that he just lacks empathy?

Cynthia Gentile: I agree, and I will just briefly say that none of the comments or assessments that I’m making really speak to whether the employment situation and terminating his employee was justifiable or in any way. That piece is not really what we’re talking about. We’re actually talking about the effects of, to use your words, Bjorn, the lack of leading with kindness and the mess that gets created here publicly because of that.

Bjorn Mercer: As an average leader, so your average businessperson at an institution, a company and organization, what can you learn from Elon’s leadership style? Because it’s not the, I’m going to ignore everybody and just do my own thing because as the average person, as the average leader, we can’t do that, but what can we learn from him?

Cynthia Gentile: I just want to cosign what you said about when I speak with students who have been in the military, they do often suggest that the best leaders were servant leaders, leaders who put themselves before the needs of the group. And obviously I think that some of that is perception of leadership style or really all of it is perception of leadership style. But ultimately from my perspective, the best leader is one who can merge multiple leadership styles depending on what the situation calls for.

Linda Ashar: I’m wondering if it’s even appropriate to view an Elon Musk as a leader. He is who he is. We as the collective we, society as a rule, we all tend to look at someone like Elon, and he’s by no means the only person out there who is viewed as a leader, who lacks empathy, but we view them as a leader because of where they are in society, running companies, achieving the things that they achieve, and we see the success that they’ve accomplished. Elon Musk is a driven person. He espouses and does demonstrate those qualities, but he lives in his world of achieving these things without an expectation that he needs to have a team that’s engaged and committed beyond what he in the moment needs them to be committed to. For example, he has said, I don’t have any business planning. I don’t engage in business planning. Is that something a leader in business embraces? No plans? Sits in his head. Where is he today and where does he see himself going?

He has a vision, and we see that played out because he’s in the public eye, but is he a leader? And the lack of empathy that we see in how he relates to people or not is the epitome of that.

Bjorn Mercer: I agree 100%. And one thing that I saw earlier this week in a podcast by FD signifier, really great podcast actually about masculinity. And so, when we’re talking about leadership, there are “typical” historic ideas of what leadership is, and it typically comes from masculinity or the patriarchy or all these different things like that. And it’s a different podcast, can go on forever. But one of the things he said was that profit does not equal value. And so even though Elon has reaped great profit, it doesn’t mean that it equals value, and profit does not then automatically equal virtue. And profit does not automatically equal humility. Profit equals profit. And so, if he doesn’t have a strategic sense, then a lot of what he’s done has been brilliant and has just happened. If he doesn’t strategize and then that makes you think, well, was his brilliance a confluence and an intersection of all the different things that he did?

Because again, going back to the average leader and what we can glean from Elon, if we can’t look at his actions as something to mimic or his planning as something to mimic, and if it’s just his brilliance, then that might just be him and his own ability to study. And that’s something impossible to emulate because Elon is Elon. We’re all different in that different way. What’s your reaction to that?

Cynthia Gentile: My initial thought is that I sort of began my comments today saying I question whether we can refer to Elon as a visionary or a genius. And I think that a few minutes on, I have shifted my thought a little bit towards I think his activities and successes definitely support a claim that he is a visionary and a genius when we separate, bifurcate that assessment from the ways in which he runs any of his businesses, although the Twitter activities are more public, so we know more about those. But I think that’s a really interesting observation to think about separating his leadership from his success.

Linda Ashar: And as far as employment and people management goes, Tesla has had its own issues with employees and employee management as well.

Bjorn Mercer: And I really liked how, was it Cynthia? I apologize, is really saying, is he a leader? Because in talking about all the profit he has made, it makes me think that, well, maybe we should call him a prophet and not in the religious sense, but as someone whom is a beacon that says things that people listen to and the knowledge is maybe hard won, but it’s innate, that genius oftentimes people will see, well, they were just born that way. There’s a lot that we do to create genius. Nietschze says the exact same thing, but at the same time, there’s so many articles about him in which I would actually describe and from a non-religious perspective, the term prophet.

Cynthia Gentile: I thank you for that, Linda, because it did shift my own assessment of him in the realm of genius and visionary. And prophet is an interesting word choice too.

Linda Ashar: Yeah, I would agree with that. And it tracks with his background and the things that he read and embraced in his readings as a young person, even though he’s certainly grown beyond that. One of the things he was asked in an interview who he admired, and this fits in with the authoritarian concept I think very well. He says one of the people he admired most from history was Napoleon. That was someone that he had sort of on a pedestal. And there’s a little bit of irony there because Napoleon was known to have some empathy in his leadership style. It was one of the reasons he was successful in his leadership, but at bottom line, he of course was a consummate authoritarian. So, I think that one way Elon could manage better, but his need to be completely in control of everything doesn’t permit him to do it.

And that is to have someone at his right hand, a consigliere, if you will, who would handle those kinds of things as his front person for dealing with employees, being the communicator, being the implementer of the planning and the execution of the things that he wants to accomplish. But his style doesn’t permit in his need to keep moving forward and to keep reaching for that vision. And because he has the money to spend on it, he hasn’t looked at that option. And that’s what a leader does. A leader will recognize, all right, I need this in my bag of tricks, if you will, to accomplish what I want. But Elon is a lone wolf. He doesn’t function that way.

Cynthia Gentile: I think that it’s interesting when we talk about this that what I think you’re saying, Linda, is that a strong leader recognizes their own shortcomings and where maybe bifurcating a role or bringing someone else into the fold closely can actually strengthen them as a leader rather than diminish them as a leader. And in this case, we’re not seeing any kind of push towards that from Elon in terms of having kind of a chief operating officer or someone who is in that role. And I wonder how much of it has to do with his own thoughts around failure and kind of imparting his view of failure as just another step along the road to success. It maybe limits his ability to empathize with an employee who has been let go in the case of Halli who created and sold a business to Twitter and then was ultimately let go from Elon Musk’s Twitter.

If Elon looks at that as just failure is just another step along the path to success, he may be unable to really see why this person or any of these people are inclined to approach their firing with the questions or in some cases, animosity that they have.

Linda Ashar: And it goes back to something I said earlier. I think he views work force, people that do the job of the everyday work of a company as being tools to the goal, because he has said he only needs a certain number of employees that can do things well. Why would he need two employees to do X, Y, Z if one employee is skilled enough to do it all? And that tracks with when he came into Twitter, divesting many employees. And now we see that in lots of companies. I’m not talking about downsizing or reducing duplication, but it does speak to his doing that with the intent that a few people will work around the clock and sleep in the workplace.

Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. And there’s so much great there. It also makes me think what you said about Elon admiring Napoleon, and going back to that, and it makes me think of Thomas Carlisle‘s great man theory where history is moved forward by “great men,” but then Napoleon, even after his disastrous 1812 campaign into Russia, where hundreds of thousands of people died, just butchered, still Waterloo occurred after that. And so, he viewed people not as people, but as tools to get from one place to the next, maybe for the glory of France. Yeah, glory of France, but still, he didn’t care if people died. And so, looking at Elon, if he views employees that way, they are tools on the way towards greatness. It makes sense on why he would then treat people that way. And then my last comment about prophet, if some people would call him a prophet, one person’s prophet is another person’s fraud. So, there is that duality of even that term. Well, absolutely wonderful conversation today about Elon Musk and his leadership style. Any final words, Cynthia and Linda?

Linda Ashar: Well, I’ll go first unless Cynthia has some wonderful ideas to wrap up. I know we’re going to have a second podcast that follows up on this. I think what this leads us to is an examination of how and why empathy as a quality of leadership in a true leader, be it of a business or at another enterprise, is such a key concept. And especially now post-Covid, it’s coming into the spotlight as an even more recognized attribute. There’s a wonderful chart that somebody created about the progression from sympathy to compassion. It’s a very bottom line. The greatest lack of empathy would be the ability to pity someone, but a step above that is sympathy, the ability to engage in a sympathetic feeling. But above that comes empathy. I feel with you. Somebody with empathy can understand that. And a step even above empathy is compassion, which is not just I feel with you, but I’m here to help.

So, we don’t see that in the leadership style we’ve been talking about today or even question whether that is a leadership style and employees, people are looking for that quality where they work, and most especially in the leadership because if it’s not in the leadership, it won’t be in the workplace at all.

Cynthia Gentile: I couldn’t agree more with those last few words there, Linda. And I think that as we think about a follow-up to this conversation, it’s a useful activity to look at the impact of empathy, sympathy, compassion on the financial success, visionary success of corporations in general. In other words, using Elon as our lens, we can widen that aperture and get a lot of insight into, especially as you mentioned in a post-Covid reality, what does it look like to be a successful leader now?

Linda Ashar: And I think there’s a real danger in society looking at someone as successful financially as Elon Musk and some others like him who are prominent, but totally lacking in empathy and ability to understand other people’s viewpoints as someone to model in order to be successful.

Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And absolutely wonderful final thoughts. I’ll just tag on profit does not always equal value. And so absolutely wonderful conversation today about Elon Musk and his leadership style. And today we’re talking to Cynthia Gentile and Linda Ashar. And of course, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And thanks for listening.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.

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