Monday, January 22, 2024

Musk, Zombie leadership and diversity - why they're picking on the wrong guy...

Plenty proselytise about inclusion, diversity and neurodivergence – yet go out of their way to demonise Elon Musk. What’s their beef? That he says a few odd things on Twitter? Doesn’t er… almost everyone on Twitter… say odd things on Twitter, especially the Musk-haters?
I’ve read two biographies of Musk and maybe it is because I’ve known and worked with lots of different types of people (I actually hate the word neurodiverse) that I like and admire him, this is the norm in the tech world. I don’t have to agree with everyone I like. In fact, the people I like best are those I CAN disagree with.


I liked Isaacson’s book, as it is readable and unpacks the man ‘warts and all’. He clearly has an over-active, at times troubled mind – don’t we all? His attack on the divers trying to save the Thai kids was bizarre. Like many autistic people he has difficulty in seeing boundaries. But, like many, his weaknesses are often his strengths – his intellect, drive and risk taking can mean he lacks other qualities. It is because he transgresses boundaries that his ideas work and are transformative. But what do people expect – some perfect PR-driven, suited manager full of faux platitudes (I've seen a lot of those) or someone who is honest about who he is and true to himself. Who is more authentic? Musk or the so called leaders we see daily in politics, business, the professions, media and the arts? We demand that people be perfect – no, it’s the imperfections that make us different.

Zombie leadership

Pfeffer warned us in his book Leadership BS, as did Barbara Hellerman, that the whole 'Leadership industry is quite simply wrong-headed. Businesses are complex and there are no glib solutions or ideal leaders. Zombie leadership lives on not because it has empirical support but because it flatters and appeals to elites, to the leadership industrial complex that supports them, and also to the anxieties of ordinary people in a world seemingly beyond their control. It is propagated in everyday discourse surrounding leadership but also by the media, popular books, consultants, HR practices, policy makers, and academics who are adept at catering to the tastes of the powerful and telling them what they like to hear.

These are the people who proclaim, with a trumpet Tweet that they’re going to leave the country or Twitter or Facebook or whatever, if X happens – and they never do? Or they pop off to mastodon or whatever irrelevant system and true echo chamber they seem to despise, in the sense of having no one you disagree with. Why make a big song and dance about it on the very medium you hate! If they do leave, you never hear of them again, which I count as a blessing.

In a rather brilliant paper just published on Zombie Leadership, eight flaws are recognised in leadership training:

  1. Leadership is all about leade
  2. There are specific qualities that all great leaders have
  3. There are specific things that all great leaders do
  4. We all know a great leader when we see one
  5. All leadership is the same
  6. Leadership is a special skill limited to special people
  7. Leadership is always good and it is always good for everyone
  8. People can’t cope without leaders
Haslam, S.A., Alvesson, M. and Reicher, S.D., 2024. Zombie leadership: Dead ideas that still walk among us. The Leadership Quarterly, p.101770.

I've also written about L&Ds failures on this front many times and a podcast.

Who cares if he loses money on Twitter – he has tens of billions and, as he’s shown before, has gambled bigger sums of his own cash than anyone on the planet. If you think Musk does what he does for the money, you’re on another planet, while he’s actually planning to get to one. The whole point of these big moves is not to shift the dial but change the very nature of what is being done. It is to redefine the concept of a cars in these days of climate change, redefine solar, redefine space travel, redefine brain interfaces, redefine social media, redefine robots and redefine AI. Few realise that it was Musk that kick started OpenAI - he was the first investor, he gave it the name.

Picking on wrong guy

Given Musk’s childhood traumas, family and school, you’d think people would cut him some slack. He has, after all, one-handedly kick-started the electric car movement, invested massively in solar and created OpenAI. That would be pretty impressive in itself but now add Neurolink, Starlink and Optimus. This IS Renaissance man. On top of this he wants to get to Mars, and you know what, odds on he does.


People love diversity until it comes to actual diversity of innovation, thought, forms of communication and futures. Then they want you to stick to 'their' script. They want you conform to their single set of cultural, ethnic, ethical and other specific group characteristics, which turns out not to be diversity at all… but uniformity and homogeneity.

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