We Need Transgressive Leaders, And They Need Limits

There’s a lot being written about Elon Musk and Twitter right now, but I wanted to address his leadership, what’s happening with leadership in general right now, and my own thoughts on continuing to use the platform.

Organizational change, especially in companies that have repeatedly failed to make change in the past, requires what’s known as ‘transgressive leaders.’ These leaders don’t just think differently, they’re willing to defy longstanding norms, waltz right past social boundaries, and pursue approaches that would seem heretical to the status quo. They’re eager to shake up the ownership of companies, make hard pivots, install extreme systems of accountability, trigger mass layoffs, demand the absolute best out of their employees, and so on. We call them innovators, trailblazers, and mavericks, and they are the kind of leaders that often come to define the eras in which they live and lead: think Andrew Carnegie, Jack Welch, Steve Jobs.

Elon Musk rose to fame in the classic transgressive leader mold. Legions of people applauded his propensity to break the rules; one, because we found ourselves in an era where transgressive leaders were à la mode and two, because he draped himself in the language of audacious social and ecological mission (critically though, Tesla does not actually disclose their greenhouse-gas emissions). For many, Musk was a superhero. And yes, when the Marvel cinematic universe needed a real-world template for their fictional transgressive leader, Tony Stark, they picked Elon Musk for that reason.

But there’s a difference between superheroes and leaders: leaders need followers.

And while transgressive leaders might appear all bombast and rule-breaking, they do have a fine line to walk in order to retain their followers while making disruptive changes. It’s their paradox: they need to defy boundaries and disrupt patterns while also creating a sense of order and continuity for their staff. They do this successfully in a couple of ways:

  • They tend to constantly connect their activities toward an organizational greater good. When Jack Welch was creating turmoil inside GE with his “vitality curve” or the “ol’ rank and yank: grading system as it was known, he was constantly reminding staff that it was ultimately for the good of the company and its long-term health (a promise he delivered on during his tenure).
  • Transgressive leaders also often pay homage to the past of the organization even while they radically reform it. They do so in order to assert their own loyalty to the organization, as well as to mitigate loss aversion in others, specifically loss of pride among staff. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he may have slashed product lines and yes, even fired all managers, but his commitment to the company and desire to see the company return to an obsession with product excellence won over any skeptics to his cause.

Elon Musk doesn’t seem concerned to follow either of these strategies. In terms of an organizational greater good, he says that his changes to Twitter are foremost “for humanity” as written in his note to Twitter’s advertisers, or to achieve his version of freer speech (which apparently includes pricing tiers). Any mention of Twitter’s best interest is clearly more for his best interest, as it’s well known that he is now steeply leveraged and his other businesses are entangled in the acquisition. In terms of loyalty or paying homage to the past, ever since the seeming bluff of his acquisition was first challenged, Musk has been on a public trolling spree, denigrating the company and casting aspersions on many different teams and functions within the company. He hasn’t just triggered a mass layoff that was handled comparatively poorly, before he did so he subjected teams to grueling and humiliating practices.

Transgressive leaders are driven by hubris, and fueled by an enormous sense of self-importance and selfishness. That’s not so much judgment as it is fact. After all, these leaders need to fundamentally believe that rules and norms are made for other people; that, for one reason or another (they are smarter, they are braver, they have been chosen, etc.) they transcend the people around them who are bound by those rules. And because of their special nature, they believe they alone can make change. Yes, that mindset can be a recipe for true disaster (for those leaders, for those around them, and for society at large), but it can produce gains for some organizations when it’s checked by two forces: actual law and order, and the need for followership. Antitrust laws kept Jack Welch from creating the biggest industrial monopoly in history, and while Steve Jobs was undoubtedly labeled a “jerk” by his own employees, he still curbed his worst tendencies just enough to retain good people that helped produce excellent products for him.

Transgressive leaders who have neither of those checks adequately operating against them are genuine causes of concern for the rest of us. Elon Musk is now in a position (with little governmental oversight, no pressure from any public shareholders of Twitter, and now operating the company under a skeleton crew of sycophants left over and assembled from his other companies) not just to adventure for his own ego’s sake, but to dictate right and wrong for others. And here we have arrived at the ultimate threat posed by an unchecked transgressive leader: if a person who has no respect for rules and norms suddenly becomes in charge of setting rules and norms, that position will undoubtedly be used to further their own self-importance and selfishness. Only capriciousness, pettiness, and retribution will follow. The worst parts of Musk’s nature will be exposed and imposed on others through what should be fairly boring community guidelines and standards for his so-called “town square.”

If this all reads like I’m against transgressive leaders, know that’s not the case. I have spent my career working with transformational leaders of all kinds, including transgressive leaders, and I typically value the changes they bring to organizations and cultures who have long ago stopped adapting to their customers and environments. We often need folks who have no respect for norms and boundaries, they just can’t be completely without bounds. I also rarely ever comment publicly on any leader’s behavior–it’s a hard, complex job that rarely is as simple as it looks from the outside. But I feel compelled to speak up now, because with Musk there’s nothing short of a glowing hot nuclear reactor of vanity and self-importance perched next to our civil discourse, and there’s no control of any kind Musk, the world’s richest man, seems willing to tolerate on himself.

Since 2007, I have built my personal brand and my business largely on Twitter, and I left the platform and my modest 13k followers last week. I believe others should, too. I won’t quibble or mince words here, I think using that platform provides Musk legitimacy at a time when he already has too few forces restraining him. I think advertising there is not only a colossal disaster at the moment, but it’s the wrong move ethically for brands. I think working there, if you can afford to work elsewhere, is the wrong move. Obviously, I think investing in Musk right now is also wrong. There are other platforms, other placements, other jobs (for many, even in this economy), other investments, etc. that don’t feed an out of control transgressive leader with more attention, influence, and power. This is my opinion. As someone who values good leadership, I need to move through the world in integrity.

We need transgressive leaders at times. It’s true. Their desire to break rules can unlock new frontiers. But we also need their behavior to be constrained by checks and balances. We, as individuals, are a part of those checks and balances. Our followership, on Twitter and in all other spaces, counts and should be given with consideration.

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We Need Transgressive Leaders, And They Need Limits
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