A crying shame

If Elon Musk and other CEOs think emotional transparency is leadership communication, they are as wrong as they can be.

After Tesla founder Elon Musk's erratic behavior and his emotional interview last week with The New York Times, the company's stock dropped—of course. To explain why, I returned to this piece I wrote back in May. —DM 


The Wall Street Journal reports that CEOs now think it's good to "open up" to employees.

Not the way communication professionals have long suggested—through the consistent and candid sharing of the organization's philosophy, mission and fortunes in the marketplace.

To CEOs like James Rhee, it's all about vulnerability. So when he took over the Ashley Stewart clothing chain, he told employees he was "the least qualified person to run the company."

Couldn't you just thank God for leadership like that? 

Rand Fishkin, former CEO of a software company called Moz, liked to blog about his depression and insomnia. 

“Whatever your dirty skeletons in the closet are, just open the closet and show everyone,” he told the WSJ. “If your finger is shaking when you hit the publish button, and you can barely look at the responses in the comments and email and on Twitter the next morning, now you’re being transparent.”

You narcissistic twerp.

Yes: It's good for your employees to understand that you are a human being, and not the Oz the Great and Powerful. In fact, I once wrote something called "Murray's Manifesto," which states that the main thing employees want to know is what kind of people they are working for:

They want to know how smart are the people they're working for. How honest. How empathetic. How interested in new ideas. How down to earth. How consistent. How careful. How generous of spirit. How forward-looking. And how committed to the welfare of the employees.

Seriously. That's all they want to know. You may want to give them other kinds of information, and they may be pleased to get it.

But if you can convince your employees that the people who run the organization are solid human beings who care about what they're doing … well, that's a team employees will find a way to help.

But it's not good for your employees to believe you are a helpless, simpering wreck. Because it's not good for you to be a helpless simpering wreck frequently enough that employees need to know about it. (They have their own problems.)

You can share of yourself all day long—and in fact you do share of yourself all day long. As I've written here before, communication isn't spooning out information slowly to babies with weak digestion systems. Rather, it’s to trying desperately to keep up, verbally, with the massive flow of unvarnished truth that our behavior is sending, and that our family, friends and colleagues are receiving every day. Leadership communication, too.

If you want to draw on your personal life and share some feelings and stories with employees and other constituencies with whom you'd like to bond—well sure, no one is asking you to behave like a modern-day Alfred P. Sloan.

But people must remain convinced you are a winner, fully in control of your thoughts, able to manage your feelings and basically in command of the situation. Because after all, you have their professional future in your butterfingers, Bub.

If you don't like that, don't put yourself in charge of people. I once resigned from an editorial director job and stayed at the company—and I'll never forget the relief I felt that first Monday morning, not having several people's moods affected by mine.

I'm more willing to take on that responsibility at 49 than I was at 29.

I have an impulse for self-expression, too, as you know. But even in my tiny and happily personal organization, there are many right and proper limits. I occasionally share a little too much with the folks who rely on me. I know it instantly when I do it, and so do they—and we change the subject. We have boundaries.

As a leader, we hope you are warm and honest. You may also be demonstrative, humorous and even occasionally vulnerable.

But if you want to create a sustainable culture and not a corporate cult, you must be responsible and ultimately you must be reliable.

It was ever thus, and thus it will ever be.

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