What the GOP Must Learn from Elon Musk

From RealClearlPolitics
Nov. 2, 2022

Donald Trump may have owned “You’re Fired!” but Elon Musk is teaching America what it means. The GOP should pay attention.

Musk’s greatest undertaking as the new “Chief Twit” involves deploying new business models that enhance corporate value, but his most visible challenge is changing the culture of this large organization without interrupting its business. That’s a notoriously difficult task.

It’s a task at which President Trump failed. Trump often complained about the politicization and corruption of federal agencies – comprised largely of his own executive branch employees – but he had zero perceptible impact on the culture of the federal bureaucracy. He was but the latest in a long line of Republicans who rail ineffectively against the vast administrative state.

Organizational and institutional culture has a way of outlasting even the most reform-minded leadership. What makes Musk think he can succeed?

The answer can be found in his first moves. He immediately removed key members of Twitter’s leadership, including its CEO, CFO, policy head, and general counsel. In other words, Musk took very visible moves to eliminate the highest profile senior people most identified with Twitter’s culture.

He then denied the rumors that he intended to fire three out of every four employees – without providing details about his actual intentions. The combined message is exactly right: Twitter culture is about to change in a significant way. If you’re competent in your job and on board with the shift, we’d be pleased to have you stay. If not, thanks for your past service.

In an organization the size of Twitter, culture may be set from the top but it’s enforced from the middle: The people who make hiring, firing, and promotion decisions, select topics for employee training, assign individuals to groups or projects, or allocate space and resources set employee incentives. Their decisions broadcast what sorts of behaviors and attitudes the company rewards and what sorts it punishes far more effectively than any mission statement, document, or speech.

If Musk wants to control the culture, he must vet those mid-level people carefully. If they’re more committed to the old program than the new, they’ll render change impossible. Dismissals will need to be significant. Most rank-and-file employees, however, are almost certainly like most people in most places. They elevate personal welfare above ideology. They’re more concerned with retaining a plum job that pays them well to deploy their skills than with ideology. If the culture and incentives shift, their behavior will follow.

Musk can get them on board easily with two commitments: There will be neither punishment nor retribution against those who conformed to the old culture, and the rules of the new culture will be clear and consistent.

A minority of employees will have strong ideological beliefs. Some will breathe a sigh of relief as Musk frees them to express their concerns and values honestly. Others, appalled at the new culture of openness and respect, will take the loss of their smug moral superiority as a personal attack – and see the new regime as representing a victory of evil over good. More than a few will depart with full bravado, broadcasting defiant public statements that may serve their future career prospects among the like-minded.

Only a tiny number will burrow underground, stay at Twitter, and set themselves up as saboteurs. Musk will need supervisors and middle managers to weed them out before they do too much damage.

This strategic approach is necessary to effect the cultural change Musk claims to want. It’s just as necessary for those of us eager to reform American government. Federal employees respond to the same concerns and incentives as do tech-sector workers. People are people no matter where or how they work.

On Day Two, however, Musk followed his positive lessons of Day One with a negative lesson. He got into a tiff with Hillary Clinton about the San Francisco home invasion in which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband was attacked and hospitalized. Clinton made it a partisan issue, blaming the “Republican Party and its mouthpieces.” Musk responded to Clinton’s unfounded conspiracy theory with an intemperate response linking to a site with a history of promoting unfounded theories. Musk’s rapid retreat (he deleted his tweet hours later) highlighted the danger of fighting one conspiracy theory with another.

Nonetheless, Elon Musk has quickly become an excellent role model for the GOP. He moved further toward shifting organizational culture in one day than the collective GOP has done in decades. With near simultaneity, he demonstrated the perils of overreaching – adopting the outrageous techniques of your adversaries to become equally offensive in a different direction. A GOP committed to building a durable coalition strong enough to drain the swamp must learn both critical lessons.

It will be exciting to watch Musk work. Speaking personally, I hope he succeeds. More importantly, I hope that those seeking to reform America’s leading institutions learn from his examples.


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