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Elon Musk and tech’s ‘great man’ fallacy

Jack Dorsey called him the 'singular solution’ to Twitter’s problems. But no leader can go it alone.

Jack Dorsey and Elon Musk (Andrew Harrer/Source: Bloomberg)

Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s co-founder and ex-CEO, this week anointed Elon Musk as the social media site’s savior, calling him the “singular solution” to its business problems.

Twitter, Dorsey said, would ideally be a “public good,” not a for-profit company. (For all its cultural influence, it has long struggled to make money.) But given that it is a company, “Elon is the singular solution I trust” to run it, he proclaimed. “I trust his mission to extend the light of consciousness.”

Leaving aside the hokey “light of consciousness” bit, the idea that Musk alone can fix Twitter is a popular one in certain tech circles. After all, he has led two of the most spectacular business success stories of our time, in Tesla and SpaceX. Both endeavors, by all accounts, depended heavily on Musk’s personal vision, commitment, showmanship and business acumen.

Dorsey’s exaltation of Musk evoked “great man” thinking — a theory of history in which individual heroes direct world affairs through force of will and intellect. Antiquated among academic historians, “great man” theory has enjoyed a renaissance in the technology industry. Consider the legends of solitary geniuses tinkering in garages, conjuring code on computer screens or scrawling out plans on whiteboards to remold the future for us all.

For a man who has revolutionized the automotive and aerospace industries, the thinking goes, how hard could running a social network be?

Elon Musk acquires Twitter for roughly $44 billion

What “great man” thinking obscures is that technological breakthroughs invariably build on the work of others. And successful tech companies are shaped and realized through the work of teams of designers, engineers and others, buying enthusiastically into an idea whose moment has arrived.

Thomas Edison’s great “invention” of the lightbulb concealed a far more complex and incremental story of its development, and depended on his team of researchers at Menlo Park. Hewlett and Packard started in a garage, but it was the corporate culture they cultivated that made HP — rather than, say, Shockley Semiconductor — the founding emblem of Silicon Valley. Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, has attributed Amazon’s success in part to good timing. And Mark Zuckerberg was just one of several Harvard entrepreneurs who were all vying at the same time to build a campus-based social network.

At Tesla and SpaceX, Musk earned a reputation as a hard-charging, hands-on leader who played a crucial role in product and engineering decisions, at times micromanaging to a fault. But even Musk, hardly a paragon of humility, would readily acknowledge that those companies’ triumphs were not the results of his efforts alone. They were the work of large teams of talented, idealistic employees who were attracted to his vision and highly motivated to help bring it to fruition.

Those include top executives such as SpaceX COO Gwynne Shotwell, a dynamic leader in her own right; former Tesla chief technical officer J.B. Straubel, who developed its game-changing battery technology; and Tesla design chief Franz von Holzhausen, who plays the Jony Ive to Musk’s Steve Jobs.

But the keys to Tesla and SpaceX’s success also include the hundreds of top engineers, designers and product thinkers, many of whom Musk and his deputies lured away from rival companies. For some, no doubt, Musk was part of the draw. But for others, working for Musk — a notoriously demanding and at times irascible boss — was a price worth paying for the chance to play a part in a grand, world-changing project that they believed in.

Of course Musk can’t build cars or rockets or a social network without help. But the importance of the teams he assembled at Tesla and SpaceX has been overlooked by many, including Dorsey, in assessing his takeover of Twitter.

In short, Musk can’t transform Twitter, or even keep it moving forward, without a workforce of highly capable developers, designers, product and policy thinkers who truly believe in his plans for the company. And that is exactly what, by all accounts, he does not have at Twitter right now.

Twitter workers face a reality they’ve long feared: Elon Musk as owner

In his previous ventures, Musk assembled from the ground up, over a period of years, a staff of his own choosing. At Twitter, he’s walking in the door of an already large, established company where many employees are fearful, distrustful and alienated by his tweets and public statements evincing a simplistic view of the work they do.

So Musk has two choices. He could try to win over Twitter’s existing employees by taking the time to listen, meet with them, learn from them and then articulate a vision that incorporates their own ideas and expertise. That would require him to use skills — listening, diplomacy, tolerance for criticism — that haven’t been his hallmarks to date.

Or he could clean house, instituting mandates that weed out anyone skeptical of his leadership and remaking the staff in his own image. That might be more Musk’s style, and perhaps he could pull it off. But even in the best-case scenario, it would involve a period of turmoil, a dramatic and sudden loss of institutional memory and capacity and expertise, and lots of ugliness as the culling plays out.

It would also mean largely undoing whatever “great man” legacy Dorsey may have hoped to leave.

Elon Musk boosts criticism of Twitter executives, prompting online attacks

Musk appears to have made his choice already. On Tuesday and Wednesday, he issued a series of tweets critical of both Twitter as a company and individual Twitter employees, including its top policy executive, Vijaya Gadde. Those tweets have helped to fuel an ugly, and at times violently racist, harassment campaign against her — and signaled that he won’t hesitate to use the platform against his own workers. They also likely poisoned the well for any relationship between Musk and Gadde, or anyone at the company who was loyal to her.

Hiring thousands of talented, motivated tech workers who buy into your vision, getting them all on the same page and working together does not happen overnight. And that’s assuming Musk’s vision for Twitter is one that attracts those types of people in the first place: the social media equivalent of leading an electric-vehicle revolution or sending rockets to Mars.

If Musk does have such a vision in mind for Twitter, it is one he has yet to convincingly articulate.

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