Nov 3, 2022 - Technology

Musk is managing Twitter Trump-style

Photo illustration of Elon Musk casting Donald Trump's shadow.

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Christian Marquardt/Pool/Getty Images

Elon Musk's chaotic new Twitter arrives with a distinct echo of Donald Trump's old White House.

The big picture: The world already knew that Musk's shoot-from-the-hip Twitter posting style recalled the former president's. Now it appears that Musk's management approach owes a debt to the former president as well.

Musk's first days as Twitter CEO have such a familiar feel because the world's richest man is leading his new company from the same playbook Trump used as he tried to change the U.S. government's direction after his 2017 inauguration:

  • Rely on an inner circle chosen for loyalty more than expertise;
  • seize and hold the public's attention by rolling out new proposals and ideas on Twitter first before they've been widely vetted internally;
  • Keep the existing organization in a state of uncertainty and fear.

Why it matters: Trump achieved only a fraction of the goals he set because it's nearly impossible to turn around a gigantic organization by posting tweets.

  • Twitter, the company, is much smaller than the federal bureaucracy. But Musk is likely to get no further than Trump did if his leadership-by-tweet isn't accompanied by tenacious and coherent internal planning.
  • That could be difficult for someone who changes his mind in public a lot and is also the CEO of four other companies.

Between the lines: For Trump-detesters, watching Musk's leadership approach in action can feel like a reopened wound or a recurring nightmare.

  • Trump fans angered by Twitter's ban on the former president have been cheered by Musk's promises to restore "free speech." But Trump says he will continue to use his own network at Truth Social for his online communiques, and Musk says it will be weeks before anyone's ban is lifted.

Yes, but: There are big differences between Trump and Musk, too.

  • Musk really is the world's richest man, whereas the extent of Trump's wealth has always been a subject of dispute, further clouded by his secrecy.
  • Musk is a veteran leader in business with success running companies like Tesla and SpaceX, whereas Trump took the presidency with zero government experience.
  • Musk has no limit on his term and no reelection schedule, nor does he face a threat of impeachment — though he still needs to win over users, court advertisers and show his investors positive results.
  • Also unlike Trump, Musk actually replies to other users on Twitter and seems to enjoy the site.

Be smart: Tweets move at the speed of electrons but actual change to products and organizations happens more slowly.

  • Other ideas that have leaked include a "paywalled video" feature that would let users charge others to view videos (potentially including pornography) and give Twitter a cut.
  • At the same time these ideas received public airing, communications from the top to workers inside Twitter have been minimal, sources inside the company have told Axios throughout the week.

Our thought bubble: Until Musk's team announces concrete plans or ships actual features, the rest of us are well advised to watch what they do, not what they say.

  • In this, too, Musk's management resembles Trump's presidency, which was much better at announcing broad new policies than codifying and implementing them.

What to watch: Trump made a practice of ignoring his own advisers and cutting out experts. It remains to be seen who will have Musk's ear and how he will make decisions at Twitter.

  • Trump also used the White House as an asset to leverage advantages for his other assets (most famously, hotels and golf courses). Musk is also known for blurring the boundaries between the companies he owns.
  • He's already drafted Tesla engineers to assess the work of Twitter's developers. Critics have suggested that Tesla's business interests in China could sway Musk's decisions about content on Twitter.

The bottom line: Relying on tweets to try to impose change on a company or a country can control the narrative and speedily draw the public's attention to new ideas. It can also undermine the process of turning those ideas into reality.

  • When the tweeting stops, a leader still needs managers and employees to go and make things happen. To do that, they have to understand and embrace a plan — and maniacal public improvising only gets in the way.
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