Is Elon Musk a Leadership Nightmare?
Is being effective enough?
Posted March 10, 2023 | Reviewed by Tyler Woods
- While Elon Musk has been a successful entrepreneur, his dictatorial behavior suggests that he is not a “good” leader.
- Good leadership is about more than just success. Good leaders develop their followers, and treat them with respect and dignity.
- Successful leaders who misbehave and hurt rather than help those whom they lead should not be role models of leadership.
Several years ago, I wrote an article here entitled “Why Steve Jobs is a Leadership Nightmare.” I wrote it with my college students in mind because, at the time, Jobs, Apple’s CEO, was one of the most popular and successful leaders in the world. As such, many of my students admired him. That was the problem, because as successful as Steve Jobs was, he could sometimes be a tyrant—throwing tantrums, belittling employees, displaying arrogance, and allegedly taking credit for others’ ideas. The message was: it’s okay to behave poorly toward others as long as you are successful. The ends justify the means.
But that is dead wrong.
It isn’t enough for a leader to be successful. Beyond success, a good leader needs to develop followers, boost their confidence and sense of efficacy, and treat them with respect. The very best leaders are positive role models for their followers—demonstrating positive and ethical behavior, and giving credit where credit is due.
So, what about Elon Musk—CEO of Tesla, SpaceX, and, more recently, Twitter?
One of my readers wrote to me recently after seeing my Steve Jobs post and said, “I work in the tech sector and in tech it is impossible to overstate the level of influence Elon Musk is having. To some of my younger friends, he is like a God.” He went on to say that even his leaders admire Musk and seek to emulate his behavior.
Let’s be straight: Elon Musk has been extremely successful with his companies (although we will have to see about Twitter). However, Musk’s behavior is dictatorial: laying off scores of Twitter employees, taking credit for the accomplishments of others, and more recently, belittling a disabled employee (among other misdeeds). Again, as in the case of Jobs, it is not enough to be successful. A true, good leader needs to also encourage and develop followers, behave in an exemplary and ethical manner (because, after all, high-level leaders are role models), and treat people with dignity and respect.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. This past weekend we hosted a conference on good and bad leadership. Experts from around the world came to discuss the entire “spectrum” of leadership, from virtuous to destructive. Elon Musk was mentioned many times as one of the bad examples for the very reasons outlined above.
So, why do I say that business leaders like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs are “nightmares”? Because their success alone leads people to believe that they are “good” leaders—role models to be emulated. But success alone does not make a good leader. As someone who teaches leadership to young adults, the thought that my students would idolize and (God forbid) follow in the footsteps of leaders like Elon Musk is what keeps me up at night.
So, who are leaders that were or are highly successful, but who also had good character and developed followers? How about Walt Disney, Warren Buffet, Reshma Saujani, Indra Nooyi, Charles Clinton Spaulding, or Oprah Winfrey? There are many effective and ethical business leaders who are better role models than Jobs or Musk.
Newstead, T., & Riggio, R.E. (Eds.). (2023). Leadership and virtues: Understanding and practicing good leadership. Taylor & Francis/Routledge.