Elon Musk’s Brutally Honest Management Style

Unapologetic awfulness is preferable to Silicon Valley hypocrisy.

A photo of Elon Musk with a black background
Getty; The Atlantic

Like everyone else still left on Twitter—at this point, roughly 90,000 journalists and 14 bemused normal people—I was deeply skeptical about Elon Musk’s takeover of the social network. Was it a weed gag that got out of hand? Did he really want to make himself the main character of American intellectual life? Does it fulfill a deep psychological need to force serious media organizations to weigh in every time he replies “lol” to some crank, launders a conspiracy theory into the discourse, or makes a particularly obscure dirty joke? (Say “Ligma Johnson” out loud. You’re welcome.)

I do have one small confession, though. I find Musk a compelling figure, and not in the disdainful, irony-soaked way that is barely acceptable in polite society. In a world of passive-aggressive rich people smiling through veneered teeth while withholding tips from minimum-wage staffers, I find his unabashedly-workaholic-maniac persona hugely preferable to the usual tech-bro smarm.

Let’s not lowball the awfulness of Musk’s management style. In the past few weeks alone, he has laid off workers with unholy and unpleasant glee. He has announced that employees were fired for daring to talk back to him on Twitter. He’s fired others by bcc email. He even created an opt-in system to not be fired, which required workers to agree to be “extremely hardcore.” The whole circus has been an exercise in performative, macho, tech-bro cruelty. I can understand why Musk works 90-hour weeks across the multiple companies that he leads; the reward for him is billions of dollars in personal wealth. It’s less clear what the reward will be for the peons pumping out code to keep Twitter’s services running: no work-life balance, constantly changing demands, and the possibility of being locked out of your laptop at any given moment? What an opportunity! Thank you, Daddy Musk.

And yet, Silicon Valley could do with 90 percent less pablum about “bringing people closer together” especially while profiting from ethically dubious business models. Go away. Let your workers unionize. Stop letting bad actors exploit your platform in countries without a strong enough press to hold you to account. A period of silent meditation from all of you would be most welcome.

The three weeks since Musk’s takeover of Twitter have been filled with a restless, chaotic energy reminiscent of another great American troll, Donald Trump. It’s strangely appropriate that as Trump’s star has fallen—his favored midterm candidates lost and in some cases got shellacked; his presidential-campaign launch was low-energy—Musk has risen to take the former president’s place in our collective consciousness. Only last year, Musk was posting spicy tweets at a rate of maybe one a week; now he’s hammering them out with a frenzy that recalls the last days of the Trump White House.

In the case of both men, the appeal is a kind of knowing awfulness that flatters the onlooker: All politicians lie, but at least I’m honest about it. All billionaires are selfish egomaniacs; at least I’m not hiding it behind charity galas and Davos panels on philanthropy. Like Trump, Musk became famous in part by understanding that wrestling audiences aren’t the only ones who love a heel. How can I tell that Musk relishes being the bad guy? He fired Twitter’s entire communications department.

The big trouble for Musk is that the challenges of Twitter do not resemble the concrete, easily explicable goals of his other businesses—providing satellite internet access; making a profitable electric car; building an ultra-fast mass-transit system; allowing monkeys to play video games with their brains. With Twitter, the problem he’s trying to solve is human—that is to say, messy and ill-defined—and so he has floundered like a university physics professor moonlighting as a substitute teacher in English. What does a great “town square of the internet” look like? Is that compatible with being a profitable subscription or advertising product, and with free-speech absolutism? Dealing with people is not rocket science. It’s much harder.

Having studied Musk’s back catalog of undoubted successes, I am reluctant to dance on Twitter’s grave, but he has taken on a project completely different from anything he has faced before, and he does not appear to know it. This reflects a structural problem with the mythology of genius that has enveloped him: Regarding yourself as special is useful, right up until the point when it’s not. The hyperactivity, ambition, and arrogance that made Musk the world’s richest man are the same qualities that make him send dumb texts to potential investors and value trolling more than he values good governance.

Not surprisingly, many people are rooting for Musk to fail. And listen—a little public mockery and some light schadenfreude is the least a billionaire in control of a powerful platform should face. But we have more to learn from the Musk takeover than the eternal truth that fame and money make unusual people even more unusual. The deranged self-assurance that convinced Elon Musk he could remodel Twitter into something amazing? That didn’t come from nowhere. Twitter Musk is the price we pay for SpaceX Musk and Tesla Musk. And at least he’s honest about the human cost of his ambition. Give me one honest Elon over a thousand tech unicorns waxing pious about saving the world.