What Elon Musk is Proving About Leading People

By in , , , ,
What Elon Musk is Proving About Leading People

OK, I know Elon Musk is as easy a target as we’ve ever had. But if you will, please allow me this irony-laced observation: The person with more access than anyone else on earth to real-time news about social and economic trends apparently missed all of the tweets about workers being in the labor supply-demand driver’s seat at the moment.

Or, maybe he did see them, but his ego told him he was exempt from this dynamic.

Tempting though it may be to pile on the poor billionaire, I’ll resist…ish, and instead, accept, with a thankfulness appropriate to the season, the gift he’s given all of us who study the workplace. He’s just demonstrated, in a clear and compelling way, what we’ve been saying for years: leaders have to earn the Discretionary Effort of workers; it’s not something to which they’re entitled.

First, a quick situational recap, then, let’s see what we can learn from Musk’s epic missteps (beyond the obvious…)

In early November, just days after acquiring Twitter, and crowning himself CEO, Elon Musk disposed of about half the company’s workforce. That’s his prerogative, and to be fair, the company was probably a little bloated. But fifty percent is a lot of people to whack in one ham-handed motion.

Then last week, Musk issued an ultimatum: commit to working in an “extremely hardcore” fashion at the company – or leave. Extremely hardcore included working super long hours, at a high level of intensity, onsite, with the pandemic-era remote work option rescinded. Techie that he is, he allowed (required) the people who kept Twitter running to declare their acceptance or rejection of his terms via a checkbox in an online form. To his shock and dismay, a clear majority of the remaining Twitterers quit (and not so quietly), and popularized the oft-overlooked salute emoji on their way to the exit, leaving the company with, in round numbers, about 20% of the staff they’d had before Elon crashed the party. Credible people who know much more about Twitter than I do are seriously questioning the platform’s ability to survive.

Coming to terms with his miscalculation, he then backpedaled on the remote thing – to little avail – and then starting kind of begging people to come back, to even less avail. Now he’s asking anyone left at Twitter “who actually writes code” to come and meet with him, because, I guess he needs something coded. They’re supposed to come in person, even if they have to fly to San Francisco (he’s paying – except there’s almost no one left in accounting). But if they want to do it virtually, he’ll even take that.



  • The beauty of capitalism is that, within the law, you can do what you like with your own business. But you can’t escape the consequences of your decisions. Even if you are the richest person in the world. And especially if you’re not, which would be the rest of us. As a business owner or manager, you can make the rules. And, as I’ve said to many audiences, if you can find enough people to work under those rules – go for it! If not, you’ll need to change the rules if you want to remain viable, as many former “return to the office” loyalists have learned.
  • Most people these days don’t really work for you – they work for themselves and their families. One former Twitter engineer said, “People don’t want to sacrifice their mental health and family lives to make the richest man in the world richer.” That quote is brilliant in its simplicity. I wish I’d said it first.
  • Apart from the money, people work to have an impact they can be proud of. One of those who chose to leave Twitter was quoted as saying, “I don’t want to stick around to build a product that’s being poisoned from the inside and out.”
  • We really are in an employee’s market right now. And recession or no recession, that’s not likely to change on a macro level in the US anytime soon. There are simply millions more open jobs than there are people to fill them. As a former top Twitter exec said, “Elon is finding out that he can’t bully top senior talent. They have lots of options and won’t put up with his antics.” You could remove the phrase “top senior” from that statement, and it would be as true.
  • The labor supply-demand imbalance does NOT mean you have to lower your standards, or that “anything goes”.
  • Culture is more important than ever. Except to Elon Musk. (For a lively biweekly virtual discussion on all things culture, I’d invite you to check out the “Every Other Wednesday” vodcast that I co-host with three friends and colleagues. It’s free, fun, and you’re bound to learn something. Register here.)
  • While work is a contractual agreement, engagement is deeply personal. You don’t ask someone to go online and opt in or out of their source of livelihood.
  • Engagement is reciprocal. If you’re going to require a hardcore commitment to the company, you have to be prepared to provide the same level of commitment in return. And a big paycheck alone doesn’t qualify.
  • Never make anyone choose between their career and their family. No matter how they choose, you’re the one who’ll lose.

Bill Catlette and I have studied Employee Engagement and Leadership for more than 20 years each. One (or both) of us can bring our message to your organizational or association meeting. The audience will love it. And they’ll learn something. Please contact us to let us know how we can help.

book richard or bill to speak for your meeting