Elon Musk

A CEO’s got to know their limitations

Pictured: Elon Musk

30 July 2018

Billy MacInnesElon Musk’s completely disproportionate response when British diver, Vernon Unsworth – who was involved in the high profile rescue effort to free 12 Thai boys and their teacher trapped in a cave – questioned the usefulness of the inventor’s mini-submarine, demonstrated a spectacular lack of judgement and a very thin skin.

Musk is highly regarded as a visonary, business magnate, innovator, investor and engineer, but that doesn’t make him an unimpeachable source of wisdom or knowledge as his twitter outburst demonstrated all too publicly. Nevertheless, it was interesting that there were quite a few people prepared to defend his behaviour on the grounds that his elevated position as a successful entrepreneur and innovator gave him a greater knowledge and awareness of what was really going on.

It’s this kind of thinking that leads to people arguing that a lot of their country’s problems would be solved if successful business leaders were put in charge. This has frequently involved suggesting that the likes of Michael Dell, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Richard Branson (although, strangely enough, not George Soros) should be put in charge of fixing one ill or another. In the case of Ireland, it’s usually Michael O’Leary.

And it’s easy to see why people are seduced into thinking that way. But while no one can dispute that these individuals have been successful in their own right in their own spheres, that’s no guarantee they can replicate that success in the much wider public realm. In most instances, they have lived very different lives to the vast majority of people in society. There are some who believe this difference gives them a valuable perspective on issues that the rest of us do not have. But the truth is that perspective is no more valuable than any other.

Many successful entrepreneurs or IT leaders are very good at what they do, but what they do is not very good when it comes to trying to run a country. It’s a bit like suggesting a musician, film star or sport star should be put in charge – or even a reality TV star.

Companies can choose the people that work for them, they can choose the markets they’re going to be involved in and, if something fails, they can jettison it (and the people working on it) and shift their attention to the next thing. If the company fails, the leader can emerge from the debris and move on to the next opportunity, leaving other people to clean up the wreckage.

What works for a business or technology doesn’t work for entire countries and the problem with many IT and business leaders is that their first instinct is to think that it does. An IT leader naturally thinks that technology can cure a lot of problems, just as a business mogul is likely to believe that applying business practices can help to run the country better. And that’s hardly surprising because they’re merely going with what they know.

But the elements that make a successful business or IT leader or, come to think of it, a successful film, TV or music star, don’t instantly qualify those people to become modern day political giants. This is currently being demonstrated to spectacular effect across the Atlantic. The question is: would any of the other business and IT names that people bandy around do any better?

I have my doubts. After all, countries don’t work like corporations. Civilised nations don’t get to choose their citizens or to get rid of those who don’t measure up to their standards. You can’t fix society’s ills by firing the people.

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