The last few weeks of Elon Musk’s business life have been unusually tumultuous even for him. First, he bought up a lot of Twitter stock, which he kept secret longer than he legally should have. Next came his successful campaign to join Twitter’s board. That effort ended abruptly when he decided to forgo his board seat and buy the whole company instead. He offered $54.20 a share, a price that incorporates his favorite number, 420, often used as code for marijuana. After first adopting a “poison pill,” presumably to ward off Musk, Twitter’s board changed course and voted to accept the offer.
But not so fast. Musk announced he was putting the deal on pause because he had questions about the prevalence of bots on Twitter. The only problem is that, having made a firm offer in writing with no allowance for due diligence, Musk may actually have no legal right to pause the deal. So now, with Twitter’s stock price dropping, he’s being sued by a Twitter shareholder who hopes to launch a class action against him.
Whew! All this is head-spinning to say the least. But while Musk is always entertaining to watch, observing his successes and struggles can also teach you a lot about what does and doesn’t work, both in business and in life. With that in mind, here are some lessons leaders can draw from the latest events in Muskworld.
1. Acting on impulse might work out for you. Or not.
Remember how The Boring Company got started? Musk found himself caught in a Los Angeles traffic jam and tweeted from behind the wheel that he was going to build himself a boring machine and start tunneling under the roadways. It sounded enough like a joke that he felt compelled to add, “I am actually going to do this.”
Considering it was founded on a whim, The Boring Company is working out better than you might expect. It’s had some setbacks, but it has a tunnel open and running in Las Vegas, and has a valuation of $5.7 billion.
But that doesn’t mean every time Musk acts on an impulse–or you do–that it will work out well. His decision to buy Twitter outright, rather than take a seat on the board as a major shareholder, certainly looks like it was an impulse. His announcement that he was pausing the purchase due to concerns over bot accounts seems both impulsive and disingenuous. Musk certainly knew before he made his offer that bots were widespread on the platform. Right now, it’s not clear that either decision will work out well for him. Sometimes impulsive acts don’t.
2. Just because you’re very good at some things doesn’t mean you’re good at everything.
Musk’s extraordinary success is built on extraordinary abilities. He seems able to solve nearly any engineering problem and he literally taught himself to be a rocket scientist. He launched the electric car industry into the mainstream, and may even succeed in his plan to colonize Mars. Plus, he’s the world’s richest person.
All this might lead you to believe that Musk will excel at everything he ever does, but it isn’t true. He can’t carry a tune. And for all his talk about how Twitter should allow any speech that isn’t against the law, he doesn’t know how to fix Twitter’s problems. He himself halfway admitted this at this year’s TED conference when he was asked about specifics and said, “I don’t have all the answers here.”
3. Emotional intelligence really does matter.
Musk has, at times, displayed a stunning lack of emotional intelligence, for example when he smoked pot in front of millions of viewers on Joe Rogan’s podcast, or when he called a British diver working on the Thai cave rescue “pedo guy.”
As it turns out, he has Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism, as he revealed on Saturday Night Live. People on the autism spectrum typically lack intuitive empathy and emotional intelligence and must usually learn these skills instead.
In Musk’s case, it appears he still has some learning to do. Twitter employees were already spooked and many were sending out their resumes even before Musk tweeted that if he completes the purchase of Twitter, “work ethic expectations would be extreme.” It’s still a tight labor market out there, especially for tech talent. Whatever Musk intends or wants for Twitter, a mass exodus of seasoned employees won’t help him get there.
I also think it will take high levels of emotional intelligence to navigate Twitter’s pressing questions of whether and when to limit speech on its platform. Is Musk up to the job? If he ever does buy Twitter, we may get to find out.