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Would you be voted out? 5 lessons for police leaders from Elon Musk’s Twitter escapades

Musk is a living lesson in leadership, risk-taking and change. Can police leaders learn anything here?


Elon Musk is a living lesson in leadership, risk-taking and change. Can police leaders learn anything here?

Patrick Pleul/Pool via AP, File

Elon Musk is known for some bold and impulsive moves including the acquisition of Twitter and major changes to the social media platform’s rules.

His latest decision to hit the news is his Twitter poll asking users if he step down as the head of Twitter. This move comes after the backlash in response to a series of changes for Twitter employees, rules of censorship and marketing changes. “My apologies. Won’t happen again,” Musk tweeted, then launched a poll asking if he should step down as head of Twitter. “I will abide by the results of this poll.”

Yikes. Musk is a living lesson in leadership, risk-taking and change. Can police leaders learn anything here? If you are a law enforcement leader would you dare ask your subordinates for permission to remain in leadership? Let’s see what lessons we can take from his behavior.

Lesson 1: You never know what is going to capture the attention of the media and public.

It’s fascinating that so many people care about Musk and Twitter with the stock market falling, inflation rising and violent crime on the uptick. Perhaps Musk engineered being in the spotlight for ego or business purposes, but he may have gotten caught in the crossfire of increased criticism of social media, leftover Trump tweet excesses, or even shades of debate on electric cars and satellites from his other business ventures.

If we think we are in control of the public narrative about our leadership or anything under our influence, it’s the first sign that we are failing to keep the pulse of current events.

Lesson 2: There is a right way to implement rapid, major changes.

There are changes that a police executive can make unilaterally. What that leader cannot do is assume that their decision will be adopted, validated and applauded by others. Even a brilliant management or policy change can go sideways. Assuming that everyone will examine the issue rationally is an irrational assumption. Doing the right thing the wrong way can equal the wrong thing.

Musk’s changes probably made good sense to him based on his experience, but the potential backlash should have been anticipated and incorporated into his decision-making.

Lesson 3: Don’t ask the question if you don’t want to know the answer.

Musk must have expected support in his Twitter poll, or he wouldn’t have remained strangely silent after the results were in, then questioned the validity of his own methods of Twitter polling. Leaders need to ponder whether they really want collaborative decision-making and whether they really understand what it means.

Setting up an expectation among shareholders that their input is a critical component of decision-making, then appearing to ignore them, is worse than ignoring outside advice in the first place. Pretending you care what others think is a mask that doesn’t fit well for very long.

Lesson 4: Understanding the science of apology.

Musk admitted that he should have asked Twitter users about proposed changes for his dictatorial imposition of major decisions. Did his apology show wisdom or weakness? Did it project a future strengthening of policymaking or a systemic stumbling in leadership? Was the policy a sincere one or a public relations manipulation?

Lesson 5: Know what principle is being tested in the public discourse.

Are we asking if people like us, I mean really like us? Or are we asking how the public can be better served? Police executives might get a vote of no confidence from a union membership, or face criticism from elected officials. Few chiefs have anything resembling job security. I once heard a police chief say to a county sheriff that he was lucky he only had to run for office every four years, but that a chief has to run for office at every city council meeting. The reality is that in order to meet the mission of a law enforcement agency, the leaders must prove themselves every day.

What would the vote show for you?

Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.