This weekend Elon Musk guest hosted the US TV Show “Saturday Night Live” and announced to the world that he is diagnosed with Asperger’s. He said something really insightful in his monologue.
“To anyone I have offended, I just want to say I reinvented electric cars and I’m sending people to Mars in a rocket ship, did you think I was also going to be a chill, normal dude?”
His monologue was self-deprecating and humorous, he shared personal insights and had his mother on camera to tease him about being a tech geek.
For many in the neurodiversity sphere, this was great news. A world famous thought leader, known for creativity and innovative transformations allying himself with a neuro-distinctive profile, to add to the growing list of famous entrepreneurs, creatives, athletes and activists.
However, I’ve also seen a very large number of complaints on social media about the performance. Some of his language and past comments about Autism have been publicly challenged and not everyone likes his politics or business style. He is a divisive character to say the least, largely because he doesn’t fit neatly into a hero or anti-hero box at a time in the world where black and white thinking has become so commonplace. For this reason, I wanted to unpack the reaction a little more and consider our attitudes towards imperfect leaders.
As a public figure he has forged his own path, leftist idealism here, right wing corporatism there with a bit of internalised ableism to boot. It isn’t all good or all bad, but following your own path and not modifying your goals to fit in with a dominant paradigm? What could be more neurodiverse than that?
Can Elon Musk Fill The Trump-Shaped Hole In ‘SNL’?
Elon Musk Reveals He Has Asperger’s On ‘Saturday Night Live’
For those unfamiliar with the critique he has received let me update you. Some people are questioning his use of the term “Asperger’s” which has connections to eugenics and many Autistic people also feel segregates autism unnecessarily into worthy and not worthy categories. I have also witnessed a negative reaction to the idea of “admitting” Asperger’s, as though it is somehow a shameful confession or something that should be hidden. He’s also on record as searching for a cure for autism, which is deeply offensive to many autistic people.
Others are pointing to the political discourse he has engaged in recently, questioning vaccines and health care advice around the pandemic, much of which he has now refuted. Critique has been made about his business practices, accepting social investment loans from government but being against state funded social safety nets, anti-union sentiment and more.
There’s a balance somewhere between cancel and consequence culture that we haven’t found yet on social media. Challenging and holding to account is good community participation but tearing people down is not.
The questions raised when Elon Musk comes out as a neurominority are all good questions to ask. They are all of interest in the discourse and the creation of good, ethical business leadership but the tone of some went too far for me. We shouldn’t hold autistic leaders to a higher standard than neurotypical leaders, we can allow them to struggle, fail and reboot the same way we do the bankers and the politicians. Exposing any minority leadership, be it female or disabled, to enhanced scrutiny simply by virtue of their unusualness is systemic discrimination.
In some circles I have seen these conversations turn into the wholesale rejection of his lived experience of Asperger’s (I will continue to use the term to describe him as this is how he describes himself) and authors seeking to distance him from autism altogether. In other threads I have seen younger neurodiversity leaders chastised for wanting to celebrate his announcement and enjoying having a successful peer role model. This is deeply incongruent with the model of celebrating and making room for difference.
Leaders Are Not Gurus
Neurominorities are characterized by a consistent trait, diversity in our abilities. Neurotypicals tend to be Jacks of all trades, with preferences of course, but fairly consistent across most endeavors. Neurodivergent people tend to have large disparities between what we do well and what we find hard. This makes us specialists, masters of some but not all. And this is where our intersection with leadership can cause a schism in the corporate anglosphere of the twenty-first century.
In today’s world we have mistaken leaders for gurus. We want to put them on a pedestal and have them as heros, perfect beings in a meritocracy in which their power and influence is the result of being and doing only good things.
We are very hard on our Leaders when they make mistakes, we are quick to write them off when we discover anything about them that we don’t like. We take our leaders from hero to zero in the space of a tweet and are insensitive to nuance. We ignore the reality that progress is never a straight line, and that there must be room for human beings to learn and grow even *shock horror* our leaders.
I’m not sure this is wise. Should leadership of all forms be reserved only for those reaching the pinnacle of human development in their intellect, personality, social skills, communication style, moral development? Should we remove leadership privileges from those who fail in one or more of these dimensions? Does that mean only neurotypical people with straight line skills and average personalities can be leaders?
Even if this was achievable, we are going to fail because as a species we disagree about what optimum performance looks like in leaders. In cross cultural / timespan comparisons what a society considers the “perfect leader” is subject to a lot of variance, the current trend of the “listening, servant leader” is just that – a trend. Traits such as intelligence and openness to experience are more consistent, but aspects such as agreeableness are much more context specific. Sometimes humans idealize tyrannical leaders who are task focused and at other times we like sensitive leaders who are people focused. It depends.
I’ve been speaking with a number of high profile Autistic, ADHD, dyspraxic and dyslexic leaders for many years about why there are not more of us who are openly neurodiverse at work in corporate circles. I think the reaction to Musk’s SNL performance says it all, to be honest. We need to be more comfortable accepting specialists in leadership circles.
Can Two Truths Co-Exist?
As a CEO I am a terribly flawed leader if left to my own devices, but in partnership with my trusted colleagues we make a great team. I believe that this is true for lots of businesses, not just neurodiverse ones and that putting your faith in one person to tick all your boxes is somewhat naïve. We put leaders on pedestals and then feel betrayed when it turns out they are normal, imperfect people.
For example, it is possible that Elon Musk is both a brilliant scientist and a tough employer. He holds views that some consider left-wing and others that are considered right-wing. He may have internalized ableism whilst also believing that neurodiversity breeds creativity. These two seemingly opposing truths can co-exist in a way that allows us to celebrate his achievements whilst also applying pressure to business practices that, though legal, we dislike. Or we can applaud his business achievements and question the frivolity of his scientific endeavours! We can have this discussion without making it about his autistic status, without reducing him down to “in our gang” or “not in our gang,” without having to side with everything he does versus nothing he does.
Humans are complex creatures, being part of the neurodiversity movement doesn’t mean agreeing with everything each other says. Good Leadership isn’t about having one perfect person at the top of a hierarchy, it’s about a blend of complementary abilities and skills and that is everything the neurodiversity movement is supposed to stand for.