Elon Musk’s Twitter rebrand suggests that he’s “totally out of his element,” says Harvard leadership expert Bill George.
“If you had to write a case study on an example of a really poor takeover of an organization, Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter would fit that perfectly well,” George, an executive fellow at Harvard Business School, leadership author and former CEO, tells CNBC Make It. “I don’t think he understands social media.”
Musk announced his decision to abandon the 16-year-old Twitter brand Sunday, opting for the new name and logo, X.
After acquiring the social platform for $44 billion last year, Musk fired former CEO Parag Agrawal and several other key executives, laid off thousands of other employees, restored some banned accounts, charged users $7.99 per month for blue-check verifications, and limited the number of posts users can view each day.
George, who’s studied effective leadership and leadership failures over the past two decades, says Musk’s modifications to the platform are a “big mistake.” Many businesses have stopped advertising on the platform, and the company’s cash flow is negative due to a nearly 50% advertising decline and “heavy debt,” Musk posted earlier this month.
Neither Musk nor X immediately responded to CNBC Make It’s request for comment.
The billionaire entrepreneur — currently the world’s richest person, according to Bloomberg — has a track record of business success. He helped grow Tesla into one of the world’s predominant electric vehicle producers, while SpaceX has inked contracts with NASA and dominated the U.S. satellite launch market.
Tesla has an $815.24 billion market cap, as of Thursday afternoon. SpaceX is valued near $140 billion, making it one of the most valuable private companies in the world, CNBC reported earlier this month.
“Elon is a brilliant, brilliant guy,” Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett said at his company’s annual meeting in May. “He dreams about things, and his dreams have got a foundation.”
Broadly, George agrees: “I have to say, he did a brilliant job in creating Tesla. And he’s done a lot of good things [at SpaceX] too.”
Both companies deal in engineering, manufacturing and physics, George notes. In contrast, running a social media company may require a high level of interpersonal skills, which Musk’s own brother says he lacks.
When he loosened the platform’s content moderation standards, for example, Musk “turned off a lot of users by opening [them] up to a lot of blunt racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny and anti-LGBTQ+ [rhetoric],” says George.
And without sharing a more specific roadmap for the future of the rebranded social media company, Musk’s pivot of X to an “everything app” could seem unclear and impulsive. That could potentially alienate users, making them unsure if staying engaged will be worth their time, adds George.
His advice for Musk: Take a step back from business operations at this particular company, and let CEO Linda Yaccarino more publicly take the helm.
“Now, that he has the [new] CEO of Twitter, he needs to let her restore what Twitter was, so [users and] advertisers come back,” George says.