It might seem obvious to most people outside of Silicon Valley that Elon Musk’s ownership of Twitter was an absolute disaster.
In less than two months since the acquisition, Mr. Musk has fired more than half of Twitter’s employees, alienated many of its major advertisers, made (and reversed) a series of ill-advised changes to its verification program, involving regulators and politicians angered by erratic and abusive tweets and declared a short-lived war on Apple, greenlit a bizarre “Twitter Files” exposé, stopped paying rent for Twitter’s offices and falsely accused the company’s former head of trust and safety of supporting pedophilia . His personal fortune has dwindled by trillions of dollars and he was booed at a Dave Chappelle show.
He’s not doing well in almost every way. And yet one group is still firmly in Mr. Musk’s corner: bosses.
Over the past few weeks, many tech executives, founders, and investors have expressed their admiration for Mr. Musk, even as the billionaire has lashed out on Twitter.
Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings praised Mr. Musk at a New York Times DealBook conference late last month, calling him “the bravest, most creative person on the planet.”
Gavin Baker, a private equity investor, recently claimed that many venture-backed CEOs have been “inspired by Elon.”
And several partners at Andreessen Horowitz, the influential venture capital firm, tweeted similar encomia two Mr. Musk’s management style.
More on Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover
Some elite cheerleading probably boils down to class solidarity or naked financial self-interest. (Andreessen Horowitz, for example, invested $400 million in Mr. Musk’s Twitter acquisition.) And some of that may reflect the residual goodwill of Mr. Musk’s successes at Tesla and SpaceX.
But as I’ve been on the phone with C-suite executives and influential investors in Silicon Valley over the past few weeks, I’ve been surprised at how many are supporting Mr. Musk — even if they don’t publicly admit it.
Mister. Musk’s defense attorneys point out that Twitter has not collapsed or gone offline, despite losing thousands of employees as some critics had predicted. They see his tough leadership style as a necessary corrective and believe that in the end he will be rewarded for cutting costs and administering justice.
“He says the things that a lot of CEOs would like to say, and then he actually does them,” said Roy Bahat, a venture capitalist at Bloomberg Beta.
Mister. Bahat, who described some of Mr Musk’s moves, characterized his Twitter tenure as a “living natural experiment” — a divisive but revealing window into what other executives could potentially get away with if they tried.
“It gives people a lot more knowledge of what’s possible,” he said.
Tech elites don’t support Mr. Musk simply because they like him personally or because they agree with his anti-Wake political crusades. (Though some do.)
Kevin Roose and Casey Newton are the hosts of Hard Fork, a podcast that explains the rapidly changing world of technology. Subscribe and listen.
Rather, they see him as the standard-bearer of an emerging worldview that they hope will see wider acceptance in Silicon Valley.
Writer John Ganz has dubbed this worldview “bossism” — a belief that the people who build and run major tech companies have ceded too much power to the entitled, lazy, overly bright people who work for them and need to start recapture them.
As Mr. Ganz narrates, the leading proponents of Silicon Valley bossism — including Mr. Musk and financiers Marc Andreessen and Peter Thiel — are taking the opportunity to sharply right-wing tech industry culture by targeting left-wing workers and Bringing worker sympathizers to their knees while restoring themselves and their fellow bosses to their rightful place on the totem pole.
Some Musk supporters see things in such stark, politicized terms. Writer and crypto founder Antonio García Martínez, for example, did it welcomed Mister. Musk’s Twitter takeover as “a revolt by entrepreneurial capital” against the “ESG fiddlers” and “cone-haired people” that populate the grassroots at companies like Twitter.
But while some tech CEOs might blame a sleeper cell of gender studies majors for their troubles, many of Mr. Musk’s elite fans cling to a more straight-forward business school bossism. They admire him for ruling Twitter with an iron fist and taking the kind of moves that tech executives have resisted for fear of offending workers — cutting jobs, eliminating perks, punishing internal dissidents, supporting diversity efforts and Opposing inclusion and forcing employees back into the office.
These bosses believe a booming tech industry and talent shortage have forced many CEOs to make undue concessions over the past decade. They treated workers to perks like sumptuous meals and kombucha on tap. They agreed to use workplace chat apps like Slack, which flattened office hierarchies and gave junior staff a chance to directly challenge leadership. They leaned forward to give in to workers’ demands — DEI workshops, flexible telecommuting policies, company wellness days — to keep them happy and prevent them from jumping to a competitor.
Then Elon Musk took to Twitter and refused to do any of it. Instead of trying to curry favor with Twitter’s workers, Mr. Musk fired many of them and dared to quit the rest – forcing them to confirm they were “extremely hard core” if they wanted to keep their jobs. He had previously done some of this at his other companies. But on Twitter, he was open about it, using his Twitter account as a bludgeon to keep workers in line.
Steeped in the forgiving style of Boom Time management, Twitter’s former leaders had allowed an atmosphere of open debate and discussion — one of the company’s core values was “communicate fearlessly to build trust” — but Mr. Musk replaced that with a culture of absolute loyalty. He dressed Twitter employees in public and fired anyone who dared to criticize him. He’s been particularly dismissive of the company’s diversity and inclusion efforts — mocking an old “Stay Woke” t-shirt found in a Twitter closet and disbanding the company’s employee resource groups (including black groups , LGBTQ and female employees).
For many people, Mr. Musk’s moves seemed like a case study in how not to run a business. But for some Silicon Valley elites, they were a flash — a long-awaited answer to the question, “What if we just … treated workers worse?”
Bosses may not agree with every move Mr. Musk makes, but many of them think he’s right about the big picture. Tech companies are bloated and unproductive. Woke up HR departments have gone too far. Workers should stop being activists and focus on their jobs.
Mister. Musk isn’t the first tech leader to express these views. Companies like Coinbase, Kraken, and Basecamp have all tried to limit employee activism in recent years, with controversial results. (More recently, Meta banned workers from discussing “disruptive” issues like abortion and gun rights on workplace forums.)
What is different now is the backdrop. For the first time in nearly two decades, economic pressures have hurt the tech industry’s profits, and companies that once spared no expense to keep workers happy are trimming their sails and conducting layoffs. Executives with falling stock prices are proclaiming themselves “war CEOs,” and workers who a year ago could have credibly threatened to quit their jobs for more convenient ones are now hanging for their lives.
All of this has shifted leverage away from the workers and towards the bosses.
“As the labor market loosens, the attention management pays to what employees want — whether it’s workplace perks or a better DEI — may wane simply because they have less of a need to offer those things in order to hire or retain them,” he said Margaret O’Mara, a history professor at the University of Washington who has written about Silicon Valley’s work culture.
In other words, Mr. Musk has picked the right time to launch a management revolution. Now the question is: how many bosses will follow him into the fire?