Five cautionary tales of business leadership in 2023

Five cautionary tales of business leadership in 2023
Musk in discussion with Andrew Ross Sorkin

A hostile takeover at X

Since its deal-closing in November 2022, Elon Musk's Twitter takeover has been the subject of many questionable business decisions.

Throughout 2023, the billionaire founder of Tesla and SpaceX rebranded the social media platform to "X", laid off around 80% of staff and lost an estimated $75m (£69.7m) in advertising revenue after he endorsed an antisemitic conspiracy theory in late November.

Robertson believes Musk's unconventional leadership has failed in a company that already had an established following and singular work culture. "At SpaceX and Tesla, companies he founded, he could build from the ground up and grow a community of loyal followers as he took on space and eclectic vehicles," he says. "But Twitter was an organisation that had its own ethos, with workers used to a very different style of leadership."

Kayes describes Musk's decision making as "erratic". This includes recently attacking brands that had paused advertising on X, and stripping headlines from news article links posted on the platform. "People may not mind seeing unconventional behaviour from leaders when it makes them stand out as unique and visionary," says Kayes. "But once it veers into unpredictable and emotional territory, completely untied to conventional business norms, it becomes unsettling."

He adds X still has many problems to solve going into 2024. "There remains ambiguity over who its leaders actually are – its new CEO [Linda Yaccarino] was announced in June, yet it's Musk that still seems to be pulling the levers and making public statements. That's led to broader concerns, declining monthly active users and advertising revenues falling by more than half."

Taking lessons into 2024

As the business world evolves, so has the role of the leader. Once expected to merely serve the bottom line, executives now face greater demands from all types of stakeholders, while economic conditions and workplace culture both continue to change.

"It's harder to be a leader now," says John Clifton, CEO of global analytics and advice firm Gallup, based in Washington, DC. "This period emerging from the pandemic has been harder in some ways than 2020 itself – from inflation spiralling out of control, issues around hybrid working and a workforce that feels lonelier than ever. It's an incredibly challenging time for executives, undoubtedly."

The corporate failings of 2023 may provide some guidance, though – even if it's simply what not to do.

"Leaders serve the organisation – and that includes employees," says Robertson. "The world has changed so much, but many leadership tactics haven't. So much of it comes down to communication, listening and having purposeful conversations so people feel included, respected and heard. Otherwise, that's when resentment builds and trust breaks down."

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