In a strong response to a recent Twitter poll posted by Elon Musk, users of the platform called for him to step down from his position as CEO. Musk replied that he would step down when he “finds someone stupid” to take over as CEO, saying he will run the software and server teams alone. But any replacement would have to return Twitter to calmer waters, with Musk remaining the majority owner.
It’s been a tumultuous year for Twitter and Musk. He began building shares in the company in January 2022 and his US$44 billion (£36 billion) bid to buy the platform was accepted in April. He then tried to pull out of the deal in July, before finally taking ownership in October. Since then he has made – and sometimes reverted – many changes to the popular social media platform.
In fact, Musk’s reaction to finally getting his hands on Twitter was reminiscent of Christmas morning, when children tear open presents, show initial excitement and then quickly lose interest. Musk may have thought that owning the website would be fun and make him feel powerful.
But the reality is quite different. He has been criticized and abused, both online and in real life and now 57.5% of more than 17.5 million Twitter users voted for him to stand as its CEO.
Musk himself posted the poll and has since responded with “interesting” to a suggestion that fake accounts may have skewed the results. He also agreed that only paid subscribers should vote on Twitter policy changes in the future.
There was some speculation that Musk is under pressure from other shareholders and lenders at Twitter to continue. Plus, Musk has sold billions in Tesla stock and its share price is down more than 60% this year. Shareholders in the car company probably want their successful CEO back full time.
So, if Twitter wants to find a new CEO, what kind of person should the troubled social media platform look for? As a student of leadership, I see three key requirements for anyone considering – or considering – this role today:
1. Confidence and freedom
A new Twitter CEO wants assurances that they will be free to make decisions about the direction of the business without being dictated by Musk as the majority owner. So the new CEO needs to be confident, maybe even arrogant, and willing to take a stand.
2. The ability to face facts
The new leader needs to “face the brutal facts” of the situation – according to management expert Jim Collins, this is how to initiate productive change. Twitter is struggling financially.
Musk paid US$44 billion to buy it, perhaps double its value. He borrowed large sums and sold large tranches of Tesla stock to help finance the acquisition. But he could now face interest payments to lenders of up to US$1 billion a year unless Twitter’s financial health is restored. These are the brutal realities that a new leader must face.
3. A creative approach to management
The current position of the social media platform leads to the third requirement for the new leader: imagination. Twitter is a resounding practical success. It is influential and powerful. It certainly speeds up the flow of information (admittedly, inaccurate information as well as the useful kind).
And it can be a force for good – for example providing data and advice during the COVID-19 pandemic or helping to highlight the failings of politicians or the media – even if it’s unpleasant and abuse seems to be an inevitable part of tweeting.
But is it really a commercial proposition? It’s not a platform like Facebook or Instagram that can deliver billions of users to potential advertisers. In fact, many prominent advertisers have left the site in response to Musk’s chaotic decision-making.
Perhaps the smart move the new CEO should take is to turn Twitter into a viable not-for-profit organization, one with enormous utility and value, if not the ability to easily make money for its owners and for advertisers. In this case, a major task for the new CEO is to identify what kind of business Twitter is, and decide if it is really a conventional business for profit.
Sticking to the plan
And this leads us to a major task for any future Twitter CEO – and perhaps the heart of Twitter’s problem. Musk changes his mind often – sometimes within hours, as we saw recently when he appeared to backtrack on a policy change regarding users’ ability to link to other social media accounts. He may consider demotion again, or even appoint someone just to remove them.
This brings us to a very important leadership lesson that the maverick Musk has been teaching all these past months: we should hesitate before labeling powerful people as good leaders in any situation until we see what have been their long-term effects.