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What Kind of Leader Does Twitter Need?

FILE - Elon Musk's photo is seen through a Twitter logo in this illustration created Oct. 28, 2022. As of Dec. 21, 2022, Musk was seeking a new leader to run the social media network.
FILE - Elon Musk's photo is seen through a Twitter logo in this illustration created Oct. 28, 2022. As of Dec. 21, 2022, Musk was seeking a new leader to run the social media network.

If not Elon, then who?

That’s a question many are contemplating since Elon Musk, Twitter’s CEO, said this week he was actively looking for a new leader to run the social media network.

Musk’s proclamation comes after more than 10 million respondents said in a Musk-created Twitter poll that he should resign. Musk followed up with a tweet that he would resign as soon as he found someone “foolish enough to take the job.”

It was one of many twists in the company’s chaotic restructuring since Musk took over in late October, a period that has included mass layoffs and resignations, advertisers fleeing, policy changes and reversals, and the suspension of some journalists’ accounts.

Musk’s management style is “break-it-to-build it,” said Andrew Miller, chief growth officer at Interbrand North America, a global brand consultancy.

Not a typical turnaround

The new Twitter CEO search has many wondering who could possibly do it. Musk would remain Twitter’s owner, and the task of turning around a beleaguered, long-underperforming company would be daunting.

“There’s a fairly large risk of being terminated or being forced to resign,” said Andy Wu, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School who researches tech entrepreneurship and strategy. “So it’s got to be someone comfortable with that outcome.”

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Musk, who is also the CEO of Tesla, the electric vehicle firm, had reportedly planned to be in the Twitter CEO position for only a few months. In recent weeks, Tesla investors have clamored for Musk to devote more time to the car company.

Some industry observers see Musk’s poll as a way to prime the public for a planned passing of the Twitter leadership baton.

“I think he was ready to do that, and he wanted to do it with a dramatic flair,” said Richard Hagberg, a leadership coach and psychologist who has worked with Silicon Valley CEOs and entrepreneurs.

Doing damage control

“He would never admit defeat, but maybe he recognizes that the problems he’s having with the Tesla board and some of the bad PR that’s coming his way is damaging his brand,” Hagberg added.

In addition to Tesla and Twitter, Musk is also the CEO of SpaceX, the satellite and rocket manufacturer.

Whoever takes on the role of Twitter CEO will have to share Musk’s vision for the company and contend with his involvement. Musk has a history of not relinquishing control at his other firms, Wu said.

“Elon Musk was supposed to just be an investor of Tesla, he’s actually not a founder, and he couldn’t hold himself back and had to make himself CEO,” said Wu, of the Harvard Business School. “If that’s any precedent, then this is a situation where his bias would be to hold onto power.”

Musk’s apparent fixation with creating headlines and causing a public stir also might make it harder to step down entirely from Twitter, some observers say. Musk is expected to be Twitter’s top influencer sometime in January, set to pass @BarackObama, the former U.S. president’s account, which is currently No. 1 at 130 million Twitter followers.

“Elon Musk is certainly conscious of his public persona, and this is one channel by which he directly impacts his own public persona,” Wu said. “This is one that will be especially difficult for him to step away from.”

Whether Musk stays involved in Twitter’s day-to-day operations or becomes a quiet owner, his potential CEO replacement will have other big tasks — cost cutting, revenue generating, and putting Twitter on a course to succeed.

For that, a cooler, more dispassionate temperament than Musk’s can be useful, Wu said.

“A lot of these cuts that they’re going through right now are financially necessary, and so we need someone that’s prepared to be in that position,” he said.

Some industry observers point to Musk’s inner circle for possible successors, such as former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey or venture capitalist David Sacks. Others speculate it could be a seasoned tech executive from the outside, such as former chief operating officer of Facebook — now Meta — Sheryl Sandberg.

Inspiring with a higher purpose

Whoever it is, the new leader of Twitter will need to appeal to employees’ sense of a higher purpose.

“They need to believe in the mission that overcomes the daily practicalities of the lives that we live, otherwise that style is not going to work, because you're asking people to go well beyond what any manager should ask of its employees. And it has to start from within,” said Miller at Interbrand.

Musk has had some success doing this, rallying Tesla employees around the idea of a climate change solution vis-a-vis electric vehicles, or inspiring SpaceX workers with the dream of going to Mars. Musk also tried to rally Twitter employees around the idea of broadening free speech on Twitter, with mixed results.

Hagberg classifies Musk as a “visionary evangelist,” which he defines as a leader with a vision for the future who also can be egocentric. It’s hard to imagine two visionary evangelist leaders at Twitter. Regardless, the new CEO will have some work to do to woo what may be a rattled workforce, observers say.

“If you want people to support you,” Hagberg said, “you need to understand how to systematically get them to buy into what you’re trying to do.”