Bots and bullies. Spammers, scammers and hate speech. Mass layoffs and the self-imposed threat of bankruptcy. Twitter has real problems. And the world is watching to see whether or not Elon Musk and his team can solve these problems.
As someone who has interviewed thousands of executives — and connected many of them with troubled companies that desperately needed outside help — the new management of Twitter doesn’t seem to be operating by the playbook of the heroic Fixer, the leader who eagerly runs into the burning building time after time.
Twitter was founded by visionaries but has accumulated problems as it has grown in popularity since 2006. The company could use fresh energy, granted. It was only briefly profitable, with a consistent history of loss-making, but that’s nothing new in the tech world. Heck, look at Amazon, which still built the fifth most valuable business on earth, valued at about $1 trillion even in today’s bear market, despite regular annual losses over the course of its existence.
Could Elon make something better out of Twitter, long term? Maybe. Probably. But right now, today, Twitter needs a Fixer, which is not the kind of leader Musk is.
4 Types of Leadership
- The Fixer: This leader sees what’s broken and one or more ways to fix it. Fixers are drawn to even the most dysfunctional or toxic situations. They bring order out of chaos, cut through messes, conserve cash and resources, and figure out what needs to be expanded, cut, streamlined, aligned, and organized to create something better. Send a Fixer into a company that is hemorrhaging, and they know how to stop the bleeding.
- The Artist: This leader starts with a blank canvas and creates a work of art, whether product, service, technology, message, campaign, platform, company, organization, or movement. Artist leaders envision the finished work and are able to enlist, enroll, sell, and revolutionize. They trust their ingenuity, resourcefulness, and out-of-the-box ability to innovate and move a team or organization past lethargy or stagnation.
- The Builder: This leader makes the foundation and structure for an organization to enter new markets and thrive. Helping ramp up a company, product, or division from small — even a handful of employees — to multimillion- or multibillion-dollar success takes a level of scrappiness and vision for what the fully constructed end-product looks like. The Builder loves growth mode.
- The Strategist: This leader operates at scale, leading an organization with a diverse agenda, navigating complexity where direction is far beyond their personal span of control. Strategists enhance structure, fortifying repeatable, defensible systems with long-term competitive advantages.
Elon Musk Is an Artist, Not a Fixer
Brilliant, uncompromising, innovative and inspiring: That’s Elon Musk. In addition to almost single-handedly sparking the revolution in electric vehicles, he has pioneered private investment and initiative in space exploration. And that’s to say nothing of brain-computer interfaces or new underground transportation systems aiming to zip around at close to the speed of sound.
One of his gifts is painting a picture in the minds of everyday people of the extraordinary things that will be possible in the future. People don’t just listen to him; they want to join in his vision.
Of the four types of company leaders I have identified in my decades of work with on-demand executives — the Fixer, the Artist, the Builder and the Strategist — Musk is the exemplar of the Artist. He sees a business as a blank canvas, then creates a “work of art,” whether it takes the form of a product, service, technology, message, campaign, platform, company, organization, or movement. Artist leaders envision the finished work and are able to enlist, enroll, sell, and revolutionize.
But unfortunately, this is not the style of leadership Twitter so desperately needs right now.
How Do We Know Elon Will Struggle at Twitter?
Whereas Artists have a knack for getting others to believe in and execute on their visions, the Fixer brings a different skill set to a troubled company. Velocity is the mantra for the Fixer, who has the urge to make things right despite the magnitude of a crisis.
With this in mind, it seems that in a very short time Musk has already pursued four approaches that would be anathema to a real Fixer:
He doesn’t listen.
Musk does not seem to care about the concerns of governments, users, and advertisers who have responded with alarm when the controls instituted painstakingly over the years by Twitter’s board and management — vital guardrails — were thrown out overnight. Perhaps this is a matter of Musk’s business background. Problems at SpaceX or Tesla are engineering problems, but humans are at the core of Twitter, and human problems can’t be solved with a few lines of code. When you remove humans from the equation, Twitter is nothing. A Fixer would spend more time listening than haphazardly threatening to change the rules of the road.
He has no actual mission.
Elon understands physics, which is how he engineered the best electric car on the planet. It’s how he may one day be credited with getting humanity to Mars. Such a cool life mission, “making humans a multi-planetary species.” Love it. But his stated aim with Twitter is “free speech,” which is comparatively nebulous and messy. For example, Trump is back in and Kanye is out. Where exactly is the line? He may be wondering why advertisers are pulling back, but the rest of us are not. If there is any more clearly defined mission than “free speech,” now is the time to make that clear. Fixers always have a clear mission.
He has surrounded himself with yes men.
Bringing in his 50-or-so most trusted people from Tesla, his family office and other organizations — and none with direct experience at Twitter — is definitely not what a Fixer would do. Fixers put the right people in the right positions to fix problems. They don’t need yes men because they don’t expect to be popular or to get praise for everything they do. Fixers expect pushback, and they deal with it.
He is taking a scorched Earth approach.
If an organization is on its last gasp, radical solutions are called for. But that’s not the case with Twitter. Slashing thousands of jobs seems theatrical rather than effective. Fixers don’t perform for investors or for anyone else. Performance is in the realm of the Artist.
Can Elon Save Twitter? Maybe, but He Needs Help.
Elon Musk is clearly bound for more success, and, hopefully, Twitter is too. But they may not find success together. Before the platform can become a true bastion of free speech, it will have to fix some of its all-too-real problems.
A visionary, big-picture thinker and Artistic style of leader is the renegade in a company. The outsider, the one not necessarily popular but frequently generating the breakthrough your team needs if you face stagnation. That’s not what’s going on here. Free speech is messy and human, and it's telling that despite many years of AI infiltrating tech to make tech work better and faster, so far under Musk hate speech is up, not down.
This is not a rant to throw out Elon. Rather: Twitter and Elon need a Fixer on board, pronto. Without that kind of leader, its problems may continue to mount.