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Can psychological research help us understand Elon Musk’s polarizing brand of leadership?

Can psychological research help us understand Elon Musk’s polarizing brand of leadership?

Elon Musk’s decision to lay off half of Twitter’s workforce was followed by nearly 1,200 employee resignations. No matter what you think of Musk as a leader, there’s no debating that Twitter is in troubled waters.

A recent study published in the academic journal Personality and individual differences can help us understand whether Musk is a visionary or a narcissist.

According to research, polarizing leaders like Musk can be grouped into two categories: transformational leaders and pseudo-transformational leaders.

  • Transformational Leaders are pro-social leaders who inspire people to achieve exceptional results. They create work environments where employees are motivated, intellectually stimulated and recognized. They build work cultures that have a strong sense of morality.
  • Pseudo-transformational leaders, on the other hand, are seen as charismatic due to their grandiose rhetoric and heightened level of self-confidence. However, they are primarily driven by self-interest. They can be self-aggrandizing and exploitative. Workplaces led by pseudo-transformational leaders tend to be plagued by unethical behaviors such as manipulative communication, excessive control, and general insensitivity to the needs of others.

Where does Musk fit in? In the case of Twitter, the jury is still out.

A crisis, according to research, is when a leader’s true colors come to light. Here is how the two types of leaders differ in crisis situations:

  • Transformational leaders take risks during a crisis to get the organization out of it. They are usually at risk of being blamed and damaged in their reputation for the greater good of the organization.
  • Pseudo-transformational leaders, on the other hand, are more likely to take risks when the health of the organization is strong. Risk is primarily a ploy to get the attention of important people inside and outside the company.

With research in mind, here are two ways to examine what’s happening on Twitter.

  1. Musk has moved beyond Twitter to alleviate the platform’s spambot problem and turn it into a digital, uncensored public square that champions free speech. They are inspiring and strong moral programs. He’s also taking big risks to make those goals a reality by taking a “be there or be square” approach and reconfiguring Twitter from the ground up. Twitter usage is at an all-time high, and Musk’s remaining workforce is working around the clock to realize his vision for the organization. Could that mean he’s a one-of-a-kind transformational leader who faces criticism from people who don’t have his foresight?
  2. The firing of the old guard, the rewiring of the product, and the tweet about its hostile takeover could also be interpreted as classic narcissistic behavior. Musk didn’t build Twitter, he bought it. Is his pseudo-transformational program a glorified version of carving your initials into something you didn’t create? Twitter’s crisis was also, at least in part, fabricated by him. The consensus among the employees who were fired, including the former CEO of Twitter, and the employees who resigned is clear: Musk’s actions showed no respect for those who created and ran Twitter in the first place.


Musk’s optimism, passion for innovation and bold risk-taking have fueled his unprecedented success. But the same qualities that made him who he is could very well lead to his undoing if he lets ego, deafness, and narcissism rule his decision-making.

Although the full picture eventually comes out, it’s interesting how adjusting one’s perspective can make the same person look like a hero and a villain in the same situation.

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