In the fast-paced world of technology and innovation, few figures stand out as prominently as Elon Musk, says Amelia Brand.

The South African-born entrepreneur has become a household name, synonymous with groundbreaking advancements in electric vehicles, space exploration, and renewable energy. However, behind the charismatic facade lies a controversial leadership style that has left many questioning whether he is actually a leadership nightmare.

Why does Musk attract such widespread fascination? His vibrant personal life, remarkable professional accomplishments and outspoken perspectives all play a role. He also happens to be the world’s richest man. And it doesn’t stop there. In a 2022 BBC documentary, former head of talent at SpaceX, Dolly Singh, described Musk as “arguably the best leader on the face of the planet.”

However, it is impossible to ignore the more questionable aspects of Musk’s leadership style. In November last year, Musk told staff at X – formerly known as Twitter – that they must commit to working “long hours at high intensity” or else leave the company. Attracting global attention, Musk wrote in his email to staff that Twitter “will need to be extremely hardcore” to succeed. This will mean working long hours at high intensity. Only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade.”  Employees were told that they needed to click on a link by 17:00 EST that Thursday if they wanted to be “part of the new Twitter”.

Does a work-life balance exist for Musk?

Eradicating a toxic work culture and setting an example for work-life balance doesn’t seem to be something Musk aims to do either. In an interview with the BBC last April, he revealed that he sometimes sleeps on the sofa at the Twitter headquarters in San Francisco. Musk said: “There’s a library nobody goes to on the seventh floor and there’s a couch there and sometimes I sleep there.” This echoes when a previous employee, Esther Crawford, slept at the Twitter office last February to prove her loyalty after Musk set strict deadlines and sent details of upcoming firings. Soon after, however, Crawford was fired, despite her efforts!

And his harsh views on work-life balance don’t stop there. Musk’s public statements and interviews often emphasise the sacrifices he deems are required for success. In a tweet, he mentioned, “Nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.” The danger of Musk’s expectation for employees to prioritise work over personal life is highlighted by Sean Nolan, CEO of Blink, who says that burnout “can result in diminished engagement as workers struggle with feelings of frustration, a lack of support and burnout. They stop engaging in group conversations, they don’t open company updates, and crucially, they don’t make any attempts to speak to someone about how they’re feeling.”

A lack of respect

Respect for his employees also remains a big question mark. Ex-X employee, Halli Thorleifsson, took to the online platform to ask Elon Musk if he had been fired. In a tweet to Musk, he wrote: “Your head of HR is not able to confirm if I am employed or not”. After the Tweet attracted much attention, Musk responded by asking: “What work have you been doing?”

A back-and-forth exchange between the two eventually led to Mr Thorleifsson receiving an email confirming that he had indeed been laid off. Musk has been accused of humiliating the former Twitter employee, as he wrote: “He’s the worst, sorry.” He has since deleted this tweet, and tweeted an apology: “I would like to apologise to Halli for my misunderstanding of his situation. It was based on things I was told that were untrue or, in some cases, true, but not meaningful.” These comments sparked outrage as it seemed he was informing Twitter employees about their employment status through public tweets.

What is the impact of Musk’s leadership style on employees?

It’s not surprising that recent research has found that toxic leadership has a detrimental effect on levels of commitment and job satisfaction. Research into organisational toxicity by Paltu and Brouwers also found that there is a negative association between toxic leadership and work satisfaction. Similarly, a recent study by Chartered Management Institute (CMI) found that bad management has prompted almost 33 percent of UK workers to quit!

Sadly, Musk’s toxic leadership style is not limited to only himself and is prevalent in early human groups. An interesting study of hunter-gatherers by Christoper Boehm provides insights into the leadership structure of early civilisations. He found that in every case, tyrants – or bullies – emerge, who try to dominate the groups.

So, what makes a good leader? Is it just a case of avoiding what Musk does? Unfortunately, great leadership involves complex dynamics, and is much harder than it looks. According to the Harvard Business Review, effective leaders function more as coaches than commanders and more as facilitators than managers. They prioritise fostering self-respect rather than imposing it and, to excel in these roles, they must emphasise listening as much, if not more, than speaking.

That being said, acknowledging Musk’s unwavering narcissism and deep-rooted hunger for power is a great place to start on your journey to becoming a great leader.


Amelia Brand is the Editor for HRreview.





Amelia Brand is the Editor for HRreview, and host of the HR in Review podcast series. With a Master’s degree in Legal and Political Theory, her particular interests within HR include employment law, DE&I, and wellbeing within the workplace. Prior to working with HRreview, Amelia was Sub-Editor of a magazine, and Editor of the Environmental Justice Project at University College London, writing and overseeing articles into UCL’s weekly newsletter. Her previous academic work has focused on philosophy, politics and law, with a special focus on how artificial intelligence will feature in the future.