At some point, many managers wanted to follow the leadership tricks of Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg – or at least try some of their tricks in hopes of getting closer to their net worth!
But new light has been shed on the pair of high-profile executives – Musk of Twitter and Tesla fame and Zuckerberg of Facebook and Meta fame – and isn’t exactly flattering. In some ways, it shows that, despite their rise to the top, they aren’t the best workplace leaders.
And it makes a good case for not emulating their leadership styles.
They’re no friends (this rap parody brings that to life), but they aren’t quite polar opposites. They’ve made some similar leadership mistakes. Here are some of the most heinous – the six things you don’t want to do when managing people.
No. 1: Carry the stick
Musk has told employees more than once that if they didn’t show up, they’d be punished. If they did show up on his terms, they’d be rewarded. He’s better known to carry the stick than dangle the carrot.
First, he told Tesla employees they had to spend at least 40 hours a week in the office or they’d need to find another job. When he took over Twitter a few months later, he told the employees he retained after a mass layoff something similar: Remote work canceled, report to office 40+ hours a week or you’re fired.
Ultimatums rarely work when dealing with decent human beings. In fact, many employees left when he laid out expectation, signing off internal apps with a salute emoji, indicating they weren’t accepting his terms.
Do it better: Work with employees to find a more ideal work situation. Establish an understanding that, yes, they’ll have to work harder and longer during your peaks – but they’ll be able to dial it back during your business valleys.
No. 2: Expect conformity
Musk says he often slept on couches or the floor at two Tesla plants to show employees that he was all-in on the business and hoped it would inspire them to “give it their all.”
In essence, Musk expected all employees to share his work ethic, habits and goals. That’s beyond finding culture fits. It’s cloning – and it’s not a sustainable leadership style.
Do it better: Leaders who hire and train employees to work just like them will get vanilla results. While productivity may thrive, creativity won’t – or vice versa. If you hire for a variety of outlooks and insights, you can still achieve lofty goals by getting your team laser-focused on the single most important result.
No. 3: Rationalize too much
Employees generally loved Zuckerberg for years, giving him high approval ratings until recently.
Part of the reason was the fallout from Meta’s mass layoffs. He attributed that to thinking the rapid pandemic-era growth would be permanent, leading him to significantly increase spending.
Zuckerberg is a rationalizer – the type of boss who doesn’t tend to acknowledge or learn from mistakes, according to Bill George, author of True North: Leading Authentically in Today’s Workplace, Emerging Leader Edition, which is a study on workplace leadership failure.
Rationalizers sometimes justify missteps by blaming others for what’s happened.
Do it better: While you don’t have to take the blame for everything that goes wrong – and you don’t want to place it on others – you do want to take responsibility for solutions. Instead of focusing on what went wrong when things blow up, quickly shift to what you can change, fix and make better.
No. 4: Steal pride
Musk’s sweeping, single-handed decisions to pull remaining employees back into the office full-time was not popular, to say the least. But aside from making an edict, he also hurt morale. People who worked with a decent amount of autonomy felt stripped of it.
Then he started to monitor attendance even more, in many cases making proud employees feel like villains.
Do it better: When you make sweeping decisions that affect your people, take a step back and think about the Hippocratic Oath, which physicians take, and is “First, do no harm.” Yes, some decisions will affect employees negatively, but if you consider mental, physical and/or professional harm, you likely will make choices that hurt the least.
No. 5: Go it alone
Zuckerberg has always been the face of Facebook (and now Meta). Beyond that, he’s also the mastermind, ultimate decision-maker and general King of the Hill. Whether he likes it at the top or not, he’s increasingly there alone, George found in his research.
So he makes many decisions without accepting help, advice or feedback. Instead, he often trusts his gut instinct. Admittedly, that can work – after all, Facebook was a good idea to pursue – but it’s far from foolproof.
Do it better: Seek and accept advice, feedback and several views on critical decisions.
No. 6: … but don’t overlook success
Despite these five leadership mistakes, we can’t deny that Musk and Zuckerberg are incredibly succesful businesspeople. They haven’t reached the pinnacle by making all mistakes. In fact, they’ve done a lot more things right, than wrong.
So that takes us to the final piece of advice: Pay close attention to successes.
Do it better: Review the process when you hit and exceed goals. With your team, analyze what went right and how you can turn those tactics and decisions into best-practices.