By Jack Cumming
Getting to know Elon Musk through the lens of Walter Isaacson’s biography reveals a man of narrow genius with a mastery of tough love. That he lacks a capacity for empathy makes tough love a natural approach for him. It’s effective, and his dictatorial style gets things done, even if they often have to be done his way.
That way is like his persona, however, and he is quirky if not a bit mad. He can be monomaniacal — to borrow a trait from Captain Ahab — and like Ahab, he either succeeds or he goes down fighting. We can learn from his example, but it’s best not to emulate him.
One of the treasures that a bit of common sense can teach is that you can learn more about business from reading about successful business leaders than you can from reading fashionable leadership books. The latter are popular for the moment and then forgotten. There’s more learning in business biography than in books with titles like 10 Steps to Success, or in a standardized MBA curriculum, for that matter. Schools teach administration. Business begins with clear thinking, good judgment, and leadership.
It’s easier for an outside-the-box thinker, especially one with a quirky personality, to succeed with a clean-slate startup business. Amazon was one, Google and Apple too; SpaceX was another, and so was Tesla. Twitter was different, and Elon Musk gave it enough tough love to fill his soul with rough celebration. Again, best to learn from Elon than to see him as a role model.
Getting to Lean
Musk’s encounter with Twitter illustrates the difficulty of turning a flabby, bloated couch-potato central operation into a lean, effective one. That is a challenge for many senior living enterprises for which the not-for-profit mythology has precluded tough decisions. As Isaacson describes Twitter on Musk’s arrival:
[Twitter headquarters] had been renovated in a tech-hip style with coffee bars, yoga studio, fitness room, and game arcades. The cavernous ninth-floor café … served free meals ranging from artisanal hamburgers to vegan salads. The signs on the restrooms said, “Gender diversity is welcome here,” and as Musk poked through cabinets filled with Twitter-branded merchandise, he found T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Stay woke” …. There were long wooden tables filled with earthy snacks and five types of water, including bottles from Norway and cans of Liquid Death. “I drink tap water,” Musk said when offered one.
Changing a bloated, complacent, self-serving culture to a focused, innovative, customer-serving one can be a daunting undertaking. It’s hard for a company, much less an entire industry, to disrupt itself. Even Musk came to regret having undertaken the effort. Would it have been simpler to just displace Twitter instead of trying to shift to a more user-respectful model?
Perhaps, but Musk chose to take Twitter on, and as he espoused a new performance model of culture, his watchword became, “Let that sink in.” He was reviving the American Dream of hard work, good ideas, plain thinking, and a bit of luck as the path to success. Employees who couldn’t accept the new culture, who resisted letting “hardcore” sink in, were let go to find new opportunities better suited to their work ethic.
Back to Isaacson: “One of the commonly used buzzwords at [pre-Musk-ian Twitter] was ‘psychological safety.’ Care was taken not to discomfort.” The phrase made Musk “recoil. He considered it to be the enemy of urgency, progress, orbital velocity. His preferred buzzword was ‘hardcore.’ Discomfort, he believed … was a weapon against the scourge of complacency.”
Waking the Giant
Any observer of senior living, particularly its not-for-profit variant, has to see that complacency, slow pace, and resistance to innovation and work-life balance are rampant. Any CEO or board member who imagines that she or he will be able to shift to a faster-paced, more sustainable business model will have to take a lesson from the toll that giving Twitter the tough love it needed took on Elon Musk.
Isaacson was given such unfettered access to Musk throughout this period and others that reading his Musk biography is one of the most valuable business case studies anyone can find anywhere. C-suites and boards, take heed. You are the stewards for your enterprise.
Of course, senior living is not Twitter, and most executives are not as crazy-edgy as Elon Musk. Substantial progress, perhaps sufficient progress, can be achieved with a much more subtle approach. That, however, can make the task of change that much more difficult. We consider gentler ways to go from good to great in the white paper linked below.