What makes Elon Musk successful?

Good leadership cannot be separated from the cultural context and personal traits do play a role

Leaders such as Elon Musk embody a specific style of leadership that western popular culture tends to look up to as the ideal. AFP
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Since the 1950s, within academic circles in western universities, a significant portion of leadership studies has been devoted to identifying the characteristics or traits that a leader must possess to succeed.

Around the world, it is common for people to have preconceived ideas of leadership traits and behaviours. In the research around what constitutes good leadership, intelligence and good communication or public speaking skills have attracted enough attention to contribute to the development of some theories on the subject. Unsurprisingly then, countless books on leadership have been written, several of which try to narrow down the traits that make a successful leader. Some books assume that the style of a leader can be generalised. The leaders they talk about are often men who are popular at the time of the book’s publication, and heading successful companies.

In the quest to pinpoint leadership traits, a large number of studies have examined one particular trait: charisma. Often, leaders such as Jack Welch, until a few years ago, or more contemporarily, Elon Musk, were understood to embody a specific style of leadership that western popular culture tends to look up to as the ideal. Such people are often revered as good leaders to the extent that the focus of the public shifts from skills of these leaders to their personality and brand. But can charisma really be equated with effective leadership?

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Research on the dark side of leadership identifies several negative traits or bad values that 'toxic leaders' display

It is easy to examine already successful leaders and explain how they got there after they have been successful. For example, many books are written about Mr Musk as things have turned out well for him, but his success is dependent on many other aspects, some of which are beyond his control. The mistakes that leaders such as Mr Musk make result from leadership weaknesses but are at times presented as strengths, only because of personal standing and previous achievements within their organisations.

Unfortunately, studying leadership based on personality traits creates more problems than solutions. Lists of essential or positive traits tend to be long and generic and don’t tell us much about what really makes a good leader. For each identified positive trait, there are examples of successful leaders who lacked it or possessed what might be seen as an opposite trait. For example, compassion is usually discernible in a successful leader. However, the absence of compassion in someone like Steve Jobs has been well-documented. Similarly, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg has had his business’s ethics questioned by several whistleblowers in the company, and Michael O'Leary, head of Ryanair, is frequently in the news for allegedly mistreating customers. Likewise, the compilation of a list of desirable traits ignores the personalities and characteristics of potential leaders.

Academic research has also focused on the dark side of leadership (often called “bad leadership”), and identified several negative traits or bad values that “toxic leaders” display. Some of these are rigidity, incompetence, narcissism, just to name a few. Remarkably, many of these negative traits can be compensated by a significant amount of charisma, which can help a leader reach the top. Adolf Hitler is a classic example of this. Therefore, instinctively charisma could be understood as a positive leadership trait. People tend to like charismatic leaders, like Richard Branson. But in this case, the trait in itself is neither positive nor negative, it must be contextualised to be understood.

Which brings us to another common mistake in analyses of leaders – the omission of cultural context, as if a specific leadership characteristic were universally applicable. Studies have shown success in one environment does not guarantee success in another.

Leadership in a Silicon Valley technology start-up, for example, is different from that in Mittelstand in Germany or a family business in Italy. One reason for Walmart's failure in Germany is its leaders trying to impose an American way of working. Or the Starbucks problems in Australia, the coffee chain being almost a failure there, as Americans assumed that the US and Australian markets were the same. Or the fact that KFC gained more market share than McDonalds in China because they adapted better to the Chinese market, which leads to KFC being a lot more popular there.

In China, leaders are expected to be paternalistic: to care and take a personal interest in the well-being of their employees and evaluate them accordingly. This is culturally specific and may not be viewed as appropriate in countries such as the US or Australia. But the lack of this characteristic would be a shortcoming for leaders in some Asian contexts.

No human phenomenon, however, can be understood through a single dimension. Consequently, leadership cannot be understood by focusing solely on leaders. Followers and contexts should also be considered. A focus on successful leaders and their personality traits ignores the context, such as the location, as well as social and organisational factors.

This does not mean that leadership traits should be disregarded. They are important and relevant. Research by one organisational psychologist, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, has shown that some personality traits contribute to successful leadership (within context and limitations). These are intelligence, drive, empathy, emotional intelligence, curiosity, humility and integrity.

In addition, an understanding of the context-specific human, technical and conceptual skills is needed. Leading a high-technology organisation may require substantially greater technical knowledge than leading a fast-food outlet or franchise. Thus, the ability to adapt a leadership style to different circumstances is important. Leading a football team from the bench is different from leading a publicly listed blue-chip company. An understanding of leadership is incomplete without considering the variables, whether they are organisational, national, cultural, or dependent on individual circumstances and motivations.

In essence, a true understanding of effective leadership requires a shift from over-simplification to an acknowledgement of multiple factors that contribute to the making of a good leader.

An individual is not a blank canvas waiting to be moulded into an ideal leader. People have agency. They bring their personal experience to the process. An important aspect that is often overlooked is that leadership is not static. Like people, it too can constantly evolve.

Published: October 05, 2022, 2:00 PM
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