Elon Musk has been a busy boy on Twitter the past few days. The quirky if controversial billionaire offered to sell $6 billion worth of Tesla stock if UN heads could explain how that total amount could solve world hunger. He launched a poll asking Twitter if he should sell 10 percent of his holdings, in light of the push for a billionaire tax that would target unrealized stock gains among the super-rich.
In Musk style, he also took to Twitter to clap back at his critics. Most notably a lewd and embarrassingly childish comment towards the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Senator Wyden, all because the senator called out Musk on what many see as a common-sense reaction: “Whether or not the world’s wealthiest man pays any taxes at all shouldn’t depend on the results of a Twitter poll.”
Musk is no stranger to stirring the Twitter pot. In 2018, he was considering taking Tesla private at $420, the infamous number of cannabis culture. He’s been in hot water with regulators many times before. But Musk is known for this kind of behavior, and it raises the question of whether other business leaders or founders could benefit from similar strategies.
We often hear how “people buy Teslas, not electric vehicles (EVs).” Tesla has accounted for the majority of EVs sold over the years, including 80 percent in 2020. Tesla has basically zero advertising spend. Instead, word gets out there through various sales channels simply by Musk being Musk. He can attract the attention of his loyal followers-turned-customers by doing exactly what he’s done these past few days.
As traditional auto manufactures invest billions of dollars into EVs, and as the world turns to more sustainable solutions to slow climate disaster, Musk may need to start playing by the rules of basic human behavior, if Tesla is to stay competitive. But let’s not mistake the power of psychological identity. In this sense, Musk is invincible.
Elon Musk is “above” Twitter by not following the rules. He acts above fluctuating stock market prices, above his bloated company valuations, above advertising, above any reputational concerns from the public and powerful governmental and commercial institutions– and his tribe of loyal fans love him for it.
What Musk has proven, much like Trump during the Twitter-filled presidency, is that social media distorts reality and throws all rationality out the window. Falling stock prices and disgruntled shareholders of Tesla are no match for the tens of millions of followers and fans that galvanize around Elon Musk and his personal brand.
Psychologists recognize the pattern of behaviors that come from social media tribal psychology. Musk can say just about anything without consequence. The wacky behavior of Musk can be easily rationalized away. Psychology professor Jay Van Bavel says, “Once people identify strongly with a leader or party, they are motivated to distort their beliefs to support them.”
Musk’s behavior is sometimes questionable. But in those tweets and comebacks are little nuggets of wisdom that all business leaders would do well to consider with their own brand.
1. Be bold, but not reckless.
People look to leaders to take a stance on a particular issue. Musk is no stranger to this. Research by the leadership and organizational development firm Zenger Folkman has shown that bold leaders are seen as more effective leaders, according to their followers and colleagues.
Interestingly, that same research shows that women leaders tend to be bolder than their male leader counterparts, but only in industries and sectors that are male-dominated, such as engineering or tech.
So what does boldness look like? It’s the relentless pursuit of goals, the courage to take difficult action, and the ability to challenge all manner of status quo. You can be all those things, but still have a leadership style that is measured, balanced and empathetic.
2. Be identity-driven, but not divisive.
Musk knows that he has a loyal base of followers. His diehard fans come along for the ride because they know Musk is solving some of the biggest problems facing us as a global society.
Research on the social identity of leadership shows that individuals are deeply motivated to follow the leader that makes it possible for people to see themselves not as individuals (the “I”) but as part of the group (the “we”).
When this happens, the tribe gets behind the leader in accomplishing whatever mission they are on. And with these shared social identities, norms are established, embedded, shared around, and even moralized by the group.
This can be good or bad. Being identity-driven can fuel social and economic causes. But it can lead to tribal psychology and an “us versus them” mentality.
3. Be authentic, but not rigid.
There are few leaders more authentic than Elon Musk. He is truly one-of-a-kind and it draws him both admiration and admonishment from the masses.
Authenticity has gained interest over the last decade. It’s often hailed as the gold standard in leadership and professional development. But as INSEAD professor Herminia Ibarra proposes, a misunderstanding of what authenticity means can hinder leadership effectiveness.
With the so-called ‘authenticity paradox’, leaders tend to use the ‘be you’ card as an excuse to stick with what makes them comfortable, or as a fallback to consistently try and get their way. Changing your style of leadership doesn’t make you fake. Rather, it proves your adaptiveness to a series of different challenges.