The visionary billionaire has introduced a new style which diverges from his peers and the leaders whose names have gone down in history.
Elon Musk defies convention.
He rewrites every rulebook, whether in global affairs, the management of a company or the art of doing business.
His acquisition of Twitter (TWTR) – Get Twitter Inc. Report is in itself an example of what not to do when setting off to buy a business.
From the Russia-Ukraine war, to the protests in Iran, to who should be allowed on social media, the billionaire has burst into our lives over the past few months. His positions on the issues like the above, along with the role he plays in the adoption of electric vehicles through Tesla (TSLA) – Get Tesla Inc. Report and the conquest of space with SpaceX, mean that we all have an opinion of him. It is an understatement to say that Musk arouses passions. Some have gone as fas as to say that he is the new Donald Trump.
Musk Isn’t Trump
Musk and Trump are completely different. Certainly they have things in common, like the ability to capture the spotlight and dominate media coverage. They are both unfiltered, unhinged and don’t care about what people say or think about them. They can be abrasive and surround themselves with loyalists.
But that’s where the similarities end.
Musk is a serial entrepreneur where Trump has only built one brand, the Trump brand. Musk is at the head of a number of companies, each one disrupting its own sector.
Tesla (TSLA) – Get Tesla Inc. Report is leading the automotive transformation as SpaceX has revived the dream that humans will soon be able to live on Mars.
Due to the superficial similarities with Trump and our conventional standards, we rush to categorize Musk. We put him in a box. Egomaniac, dictatorial, intolerant of being contradicted, self-absorbed, dangerous, entitled billionaire, these are the qualifiers of the box we put him in.
It turns out that this is not the right evaluation grid.
Musk’s actions since the start of the year — from his support for Ukraine in February to the acquisition of Twitter in October — have revealed a lot.
The richest man in the world is like Switzerland. He aspires to neutrality and staying close to the center. Like the small European country which is surrounded by giants like France, Germany and Italy, Musk has a decision-making process which tries to draw the legitimacy of its results from the people. This is a departure from the traditional type of leadership, which relies almost entirely on its own instincts, an autocratic decision-making process, similar to Iran, if we were to complete the country analogy.
Legitimacy from the People
His “people” are Twitter and its hundreds of millions of users. He sees the social network as the de facto town square of our time. The Greek agora, where the people meet to discuss the problems of everyday life. He therefore believes that appealing to this base is the best possible source of legitimacy. He organizes polls on the crucial decisions he makes, a bit like Switzerland and its regular use of referendums. The poll is Musk’s referendum.
Over the last twelve months, Musk made three big decisions: the sale of part of his Tesla shares in November 2021, the offer to acquire Twitter for $44 billion last April, and proposing a peace plan to end the war between Russia and Ukraine in October.
Each time, the billionaire submitted these questions to the Twitter users. He could have simply announced his decisions. Instead, he chose to first expose the questions to the collective judgement of the agora.
Emails made public in the legal battle with Twitter showed that his relatives encouraged him to buy Twitter in March. Musk made his offer several weeks later, after consulting Twitter users.
The sale of his Tesla shares is another example that shows him adopting this process of legitimization. Anyone who follows the markets knows that announcing in advance that you may be selling shares of your company, can lead many investors to bet on the fall of the stock price, with material consequences for shareholders.
But Musk is different. He feels that he does not have to answer to the markets but to the people. The same people who today view him as a hero or a villain. It all depends on which side you choose to take.
Again and again, legitimacy seems to be the Muskian obsession.
When he recently tweeted a conspiracy theory about the attack on Paul Pelosi, the husband of House speaker Nancy Pelosi, Musk listened to the Twitter outcry over him spreading fake news. He deleted his tweet within a few hours.
He did the same with a tweet suggesting a possible collaboration between him and rapper Kanye West, now known as Ye. He deleted the post after the chorus of condemnations due to the anti-Semitic statements made by the musician.
Musk doesn’t say I’m wrong, but he corrects his mistakes when he realizes that the people feel he has crossed a line.
“The people are my guide,” the billionaire seems to say, thus breaking with the great leaders to whom he wants to be compared. A true leader can also admit that it is sometimes the people who guide him and light his way.
You were warned: Musk does not fit in any box.