Elon Musk Is Teaching a Master Class in How Not to Lead

There is no burnout loophole for geniuses.

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We’re not even three weeks in, and Elon Musk’s leadership of Twitter should be one of Harvard Business School’s famous case studies in its leadership program. But in this case, what should be studied is what not to do as a leader. Seeing mistakes to avoid can be as powerful of a learning tool as studying successes. And Musk is putting on a free virtual leadership course for the entire world on how not to lead.

And the reason why isn’t hard to see. Just yesterday he tweeted that he was going to be sleeping at the Twitter office in San Francisco “until the org is fixed.” The same day, in a video to the B20 conference in Indonesia, he said, “I have too much work on my plate, that is for sure,” and “I’m really working at the absolute most amount that I can work, from morning till night, seven days a week.” He added, “this is not something I recommend, frankly.”

A quick review of the highlights, or lowlights, of his brief tenure at Twitter would seem to support that conclusion. There was the hasty rollout of the new Twitter Blue. The hasty rollback of Twitter Blue. There was laying off half the company. Then trying to rehire some of them days later. By day 13, he was issuing warnings of possible bankruptcy.

His leadership style at Twitter so far has been summed up in a Q&A in which he said employees should be prepared to work 80-hour weeks with “a maniacal sense of urgency.”

What makes Musk such a powerful counter-example of leadership is how brilliant he is. But as he shows, even being a glow-in-the-dark genius doesn’t protect you against the effects of exhaustion on decision-making. There’s no burnout loophole for geniuses. Musk’s brilliance has been most manifest in the science of renewable energy, which he’s used to reinvent the entire automotive industry. And yet here he is, putting on a clinic on how not to use human energy.

Leadership isn’t about the quantity of decisions you make, it’s about the quality of those decisions. It’s about judgment and being able to tap into your wisdom in the midst of any crisis. It’s about being able to stand firm in the calm metaphorical eye of the hurricane — which is very different from staying up all night and increasing the intensity of the hurricane on those around you.

The science of sleep — and the effects of sleep deprivation — is clear. No matter how smart we are, sleep deprivation makes us reactive, reckless and impulsive — check, check and check. Studies also show that chronic sleep deprivation has the same cognitive effects as being drunk. But no leader — at least so far — would proclaim that he’s committed to being legally drunk “until the org is fixed.”

Another counter-case study, as if we need another one, is Sam Bankman-Fried. Here’s Business Insider reporting, in December of last year, on the FTX founder “famously sleeping four hours a night on a beanbag chair next to his desk and taking calls from clients and investors at 3 a.m.” Would this story have had a different ending if he’d slept in his bed and not taken investor calls at 3 a.m.? We’ll never know, but we do know how four hours on a beanbag ended up. That beanbag chair might be one of the few assets to be divvied up by the one million creditors in FTX’s new bankruptcy filing this week.

Back to Musk. If he isn’t going to sleep until things are fixed, what he’s telling us is that the fix is going to be delayed. In addition to the blue check, and the gray check, how about a red check, which would go on tweets when the user is operating on a maniacal lack of sleep? But until then, we can all continue to audit the free Harvard Business School-level course he’s teaching on how not to lead. If you complete it you get a blue check.

Published on
November 15, 2022
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