A Blog by Jonathan Low


Sep 18, 2023

Why Do So Many Tech Leaders Sound More Contemptuous Of Workforce?

Leaders who feel invulnerable, act invulnerable. That is a side effect of unimaginable wealth. 

It has not been a successful template for leadership success in the human value era of economics. The question is whether this is a preview of the future - or a sign that such imperial CEO behavior has, once again, hit its peak. JL 

Nitish Pahwa reports in Slate:

Mark Zuckerberg’s rationale for Meta layoffs is an exemplar of “the Elon Musk School of Management,” highlighting CEOs’ shared hatred of remote work and bureaucracy. Reddit CEO Huffman cited Musk’s Twitter “as an example to follow,” even though his own workforce cuts haven’t earned him any profit, internal goodwill, or improved website functionality. Executives from Amazon and Google echoed such talking points. Grindr’s CEO told his staff to report to company offices. When half refused, they were fired. Andreessen Horowitz have related other CEOs “going hardcore” Musk represents a good, old way of doing business: ignoring everything but his principles, his roadmap, and his path to profitability.” What’s less clear is what it inspires further down the org chart.

On Monday, the Australian Financial Review posted a clip on X spotlighting a speaker at one of its conferences. It demonstrated how Tim Gurner, who runs a luxury real estate firm, diagnosed the strong post-pandemic labor market and the work-from-home status quo with which it coincided: “People decided that they didn’t really want to work so much anymore through COVID, and that has had a massive issue on productivity,” Gurner said. He went on:

They have been paid a lot to do not too much in the last few years, and we need to see that change. We need to see unemployment rise—unemployment has to jump 40, 50 percent, in my view. We need to see pain in the economy. We need to remind people that they work for the employer, not the other way around. There’s been a systematic change where employees feel the employer is extremely lucky to have them, as opposed to the other way around. So it’s a dynamic that has to change. We’ve got to kill that attitude, and that has to come through hurting the economy, which is what the world is trying to do. … People are definitely laying people off, and we’re starting to see less arrogance in the employment market, and that has to continue.

Gurner quickly became an international Main Character, inviting opprobrium on social media not only from other Oceanian CEOs and politicians but also from U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who pointed out that “major CEOs have skyrocketed their own pay” in the period during which, they claim, their workers were lazing around. Still, even though this particular multimillionaire has long been notorious for his anti-labor disdain—having previously ranted about millennial avocado toast diets and Australia’s lack of migrant serfs—he’s far from the only CEO who’s engendered a recent backlash cycle over his distinct lack of respect for the working classes.

Let’s turn stateside. In early August, Dave Portnoy bought back the digital empire he founded, Barstool Sports, for the stunning price of $1. By the end of the month, the notoriously crass sports-media mogul had taken to the brand’s YouTube channel to announce he was implementing steep job cuts. “We have to get back to a break-even thing—we’re losing a lot,” he said on Barstool Radio. “People have to step the fuck up. I don’t wanna lay anybody off, but the last thing I wanna do, when we have to, is have [Barstool’s Eric Nathan] be like, Ugh, you ruined his life, he’s one of the good ones. … I guess we just don’t care about the blog,” affecting a falsetto to mock his colleague’s concern over the site’s capacity to cover the NFL. Turning toward the office area where Nathan was sitting, Portnoy went on: “Well, maybe you have to blog on the weekend, Nate, you fuck! How about that? How about you get in earlier?”

Barstool Sports, in other words, would be going extremely hardcore, even as it laid off about a quarter of its staff. “We all gotta do more, not less,” Portnoy thundered, allowing that “we’re going to have issues. … Things will break.” The demand for absolutely fealty and nonstop grinding extended to employees who’d gotten the ax. As Chris Thompson noted in Defector: “One laid-off NFL blogger that Portnoy spent the rest of his Wednesday YouTube rant emphatically characterizing as a worthless replaceable drone later joined the program in order to make clear that he holds no ill will for anyone at Barstool.” Thompson also linked to other laid-off workers who announced their job losses while going out of their way to declare that “they would still be proud to have Dave Portnoy hock a loogie into their breakfast cereal

Portnoy’s deal-with-it stance, and the groveling he expected and received from even his former workers, reminded me of another mogul who recently came into possession of a media property of much fascination: Elon Musk.

On Barstool Radio, Portnoy homed in on “breaking even” financially, demanding that workers do more with less and yelling at them to put in the overtime and “step the fuck up” even if things go wrong. It sounded a lot like Musk’s M.O. since taking over Twitter—eerily so. Look at Musk’s insistence that Twitter is “breaking even” when it’s not, his early demands for remaining staff to go “extremely hardcore” after he fired the bulk of their colleagues, and his dismissals of the alarming consequences of website degradation.

It’s true that Portnoy has, more or less, always been this way. But scan the international plutocrat class, including folks like Tim Gurner, and it’s unmissable: A lot more of them are talking like Elon Musk.

Andi Owen, CEO of the furniture conglomerate MillerKnoll, was forced to apologize in April after berating her workforce for questioning her about losing a bonus they’d previously been entitled to, in the process instructing the team to “leave Pity City.” Barron’s referred to Mark Zuckerberg’s rationale for a round of Meta layoffs in March as an exemplar of “the Elon Musk School of Management,” highlighting the CEOs’ shared hatred of remote work and corporate bureaucracy. Reddit CEO Steve Huffman positively cited Musk’s Twitter reign “as an example for Reddit to follow,” even though his own workforce cuts and Redditor crackdowns haven’t earned him any profit, internal goodwill, or improved website functionality. Executives from both Amazon and Google echoed such talking points soon after Musk took over Twitter, either demanding that employees be ranked by arbitrary measures of “performance” or asking workers to “accomplish more with less.” Wired reported last week on an August demand from Grindr’s CEO for his entire staff, no matter which state they lived in, to pledge that they’d move to either San Francisco, Chicago, or New York City by October so as to report to company offices. When about half of the staff refused to immediately abide by this abrupt order, they were fired.

Obviously, Musk is hardly a pioneer of cutthroat capitalism. CEOs have been talking and certainly thinking like anthropomorphized copies of Atlas Shrugged for decades. Still, the more you observe these corporate leaders who force out swaths of employees and tell the survivors to buck up, the more you realize how closely they’re all taking after Musk. The tech polymath’s yearslong advocacy of leadership based on “first principles”—by the Wall Street Journal’s definition, “envisioning what ultimate success looks like and then being open to any path that leads there”—has been echoed by both Musk’s hand-picked X CEO, Linda Yaccarino, and the anti-woke-biotech-CEO-turned-presidential-candidate Vivek Ramaswamy. Venture capitalists from firms like Andreessen Horowitz have related positive anecdotes of other CEOs “going hardcore” and “demanding more of their teams” thanks to Musk’s inspiration. Even Huffman’s willingness to oust Reddit moderators who protest his policy changes resembles Musk’s tendency to fire those who merely criticize him. Not just Muskian rhetoric, but Muskian action, as his buddies on the All-In podcast celebrate dismissals of the “surplus elite.” One VC told the New York Times in December that Musk “says the things many C.E.O.s wish they could say, and then he actually does them.”

What Silicon Valley’s finest have done is take cues from Elon Musk to no longer profess to give a crap about the rabble underneath them, whether employees or users—especially those who ask for more autonomy and power, or who wish for their employers to live up to moral standards, or whose politics lie to the left of their bosses’. It’s pretty safe to say tech oligarchs really didn’t like it when their workers staged walkouts to protest inadequate policy around sexual misconduct, or expressed displeasure with their company’s tacit or explicit endorsement of bigoted rhetoric and institutions, or committed heresies like union organizing. Those are mere distractions that only threaten these businesses’ full potential of growing massively and obviously making the world better in the process. As Musk wrote in a 2019 email to Tesla employees after cutting 7 percent of their head count: “Succeeding in our mission is essential to ensure that the future is good, so we must do everything we can to advance the cause.” Now he’s raging against the Anti-Defamation League for its documentation of escalating hate speech on X and calls for sponsorship boycotts, likely just one factor in the platform’s ad-revenue woes. And he’s framing his rhetoric against the organization as a company necessity, casting it as needed resistance against tech-company boycotts of the type that hit Facebook back in 2020. That talking point is already being parroted by prominent Musk acolytes.


Indeed, if there’s something refreshing about Musk to his tech-world compatriots, it’s that he doesn’t pretend to care about anything that could stand in the way of their full, unadulterated ambitions. And if there was one place that provided a cautionary fable as to letting that stuff overtake your business goals, it was pre-Musk Twitter. As Platformer observed, Big Tech’s perspective is that CEOs like Jack Dorsey “represented a new, bad way of doing business, dropping everything to go protest in his home state, explicitly linking his businesses (if only symbolically) to fights for justice and equality. And Musk represents a good, old way of doing business: ignoring everything but his principles, his product roadmap, and his path to profitability.” An excerpt from Walter Isaacson’s new Musk biography emphasized this point when it came to Parag Agrawal, who took charge of Twitter in between the Dorsey and Musk eras:

Musk found Agrawal to be likable. “He’s a really nice guy,” he says. But that was the problem. If you ask Musk what traits a CEO needs, he would not include being a really nice guy. One of his maxims is that managers should not aim to be liked. “What Twitter needs is a fire-breathing dragon,” he said after that meeting, “and Parag is not that.”

Even beyond Dorsey and Agrawal, it was the company culture inculcated by such (allegedly) social justice–oriented nice guys that purportedly held Twitter back. Isaacson quotes Leslie Berland, Twitter’s former chief marketing and people officer: “We were definitely very high-empathy, very caring about inclusion and diversity; everyone needs to feel safe here.” One need just glance at how many tech guys have supported the explicitly anti–diversity and inclusion platform of Vivek Ramaswamy to recognize how much that stuff sticks in their craw

In January, Lili Loofbourow observed at Slate that Musk’s behavior at Twitter laid something bare about our billionaire class—namely, that their “idea of freedom defines itself as being against anything that might limit a man’s freedom to do what he wishes, particularly if it interposes protections of any kind between those he wishes to cheat or abuse or exploit.” It’s in line with the noxious “longtermist” philosophies that flatter these oligarchs as clairvoyant kings, who deserve their wealth and power because they know how to use them for the entire world’s net benefit, never mind if your paradisiacal visions don’t align with theirs. “The point is that an implied but distinct subset of people are noble citizen-agents who deserve freedom (from regulation), and everyone else’s suffering is irrelevant,” Loofbourow added. “Bureaucracies and red tape must be slashed through to benefit the former; the latter will have their conduct not just regulated but criminalized to the degree that most enriches and protects the former.”

Misguided, opinionated labor is dead weight; the high-up leaders know best, which is why they’ve earned the positions they have to begin with. This viewpoint, as expressed by Musk-emboldened dudes like Portnoy and Ramaswamy and the Silicon Valley VC class, seems to inspire fealty among those in their immediate circles. What’s less clear is what it ultimately inspires further down the org chart.


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