On the face of it, business would have little to learn from the worlds of James Bond or George Smiley. But what of the real world of spies? Professor Adrian Furnham and John Taylor have written an authoritative book, “The Psychology of Spies and Spying”…
On 22nd February 2023 the ABP took a playful spin on the topic of Elon Musk’s leadership style by testing the evidence in a “mock trial”. Nicola Jones set the tone as the “judge” by wearing a pink feather boa and silly glasses, declaring that the principles of natural justice would not apply and that her word was final! With the tone set, the “jury”/audience took an oath to pay some attention and exercise all their biases and we were off.
Download the event report here or carry on reading..
To test the waters the jury was asked their views on the top three things a leader must offer. Appreciation of emotionally intelligent leadership was clear:
The jury were also invited to declare their position on the question of whether Musk is a misunderstood genius:
Proceedings then got underway. Georgi Yankov, acting as expert witness, gave us an impartial, yet thorough and engaging explanation of the range of issues at play when considering the Musk persona. In particular, he highlighted:
- The fact of his Aspergers diagnosis and its potential impact on his actions
- The fact of his immigrant status, meaning he is driven to fit in and to prove himself
- The tension between his traditionalistic tendencies and his unconventional behaviour
Georgi pointed out that neuroticism supports active leadership. Musk describes himself as not being “normal” which may partially absolve him of the consequences of being low on agreeableness. This could also be down to his Aspergers. Musk appears to be comfortable with his own behaviours, so is our understanding of his actions our problem? On the other hand, to close Georgi reminded us that we know that emotional intelligence is the biggest indicator for success in leadership.
Seb Steele, advocating in favour of Musk’s genius as a leader, opened by invoking Wittgenstein’s Ruler to point to the force of our own prejudices when assessing Musk’s relative merits as a leader. He invited us to consider a range of hypotheses:
- Musk is a success because of his behavioural approach
- Musk could be more successful if he adapted his approach
- We should not aspire to be like Elon Musk
Seb was clear that Musk’s conceptual vision and practical execution of strategy in business is a resounding financial success, achieving extraordinary things. In an elegantly constructed submission, he made the case for Musk as the great outlier who gets things done, citing Warren Buffet’s description of “The unrecognised simplicity of effective action”. The jury were urged to see Musk’s actions in context and reminded that Musk himself works extreme hours, often sleeping on site, making him in effect a “servant leader”.
Dr Martin Egan brought his psychotherapeutic expertise to bear in favour of the proposition that Musk’s does appear to exemplify maladaptive leadership. Martin set the scene by reminding us of the 19th C historian, Lord Acton’s, observations about the onus placed on those in power to exercise moral judgement, and their common failure to do so,
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Great men are almost always bad men.”
Martin asked us to consider Musk’s achievements in a moral and aesthetic context. We were urged to reflect upon the question: what is the success that we are measuring?
Invoking compassion for the “wounded boy” whose father allegedly engaged in criminal activity including murder, and whose mother appears to have only sought to amplify his genius/narcissism, Martin pointed to indicators of poor moral judgement, including holding individuals responsible for failures, sacking them and trashing their reputations, and refusing to redress those actions once evidence emerged that they were not culpable. Martin pointed to Musk’s apparent ability to switch emotional engagement on and off when it suits him, and to the frequency and intensity of his negative behaviours, and asked the jury to consider whether his actions accord with basic standards of human decency.
After listening to such eloquent and well-reasoned submissions, the jury demonstrated that dial had shifted, with fewer undecided and both sides gaining support:
Many thanks to all our speakers, to Stewart Desson for organising the event and to Shibani Radway for her invaluable support.