Business Maverick


How the mighty have fallen — Vladimir Putin, Elon Musk and the Icarus effect

How the mighty have fallen — Vladimir Putin, Elon Musk and the Icarus effect
From left: Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Mikhail Metzel / Sputnik / Kremling Pool Mandatory Credit) | Elon Musk. (Photo: Maja Hitij / Getty Images)

The festive season is typically an opportune time to review the passing year, and on reflection, there is one thing about 2022 that really stands out: Big-time leadership failure. I mean real major disaster stuff.

One of the strange things about the failure of leadership is that it is so obvious. The reasons why it happens are obvious. The consequences are obvious, almost inevitable. And yet, as in the Greek tragedies of classical times, destiny seems to just take over. Why is this?

The two most obvious examples from 2022 couldn’t be more different in their functions, desires and aims: Elon Musk and Vladimir Putin. But in one crucial respect, they overlap rather obviously, and that is their hubris on a galactic scale. And in both cases, that would come close to being a literal description.

Musk lost around $100-billion of his wealth; gained perhaps the least appealing entry into the Guinness World Records as the person who has lost the most money in history; and, arguably worst of all, was booed when introduced on Dave Chappelle’s comedy show. He also lost his position as the world’s richest man to — wait for it — a Frenchman.

Putin has essentially lost the war in Ukraine; it’s not over yet, but the prospect of true victory is gone. He has lost his place in the world, and, I’m willing to bet, his popularity among the Russian people, which up till earlier this year has been remarkably resilient.

He has also lost, it is loosely estimated, about 70,000 of his compatriots, Russian soldiers who have died on the battlefield which some of his own generals argued he should not have entered. Nobody knows exactly how many people have died in the Ukraine invasion; certainly plenty of Ukrainian civilians from the random missile blasts, and soldiers in the trenches.

But there seems little doubt that more Russians have died in this “special military operation” than died in the Russian war in Afghanistan. And that lasted 12 years.

Another overlap between these two very different individuals, I suspect, turns on a single word: invulnerability. Leaders and leadership, as we all know, go through phases. But psychologists have recognised that there is a point where leaders consider themselves invulnerable — and that, my friend, is where the trouble (and the hubris) start.

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There are a gazillion studies that show and try to measure this effect, but its existence goes back millennia. Greek mythology tells the story with wonderful graphic prowess in the tale of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun. 

According to the story, Daedalus, a mythical inventor, created wings made of feathers and wax to escape from Crete where he and his son, Icarus, were held captive by King Minos. Icarus, however, ignored his father’s warnings and flew too close to the sun. His wings melted and he fell into the sea, where he unceremoniously died.

There is another version involving both Icarus and Oedipus, where Icarus flew too close to his mom. Ba dum.

More recently, Stanford Business School lecturer and prolific author Jim Collins has written subtly on the stages of corporate decline in the book How the Mighty Fall. Right at the top of the declining trajectory, he lists Hubris Born of Success.

The success part is, I suspect, the crucial bit. Because to become overpowered by a sense of invulnerability, you have to first succeed — often more than you expected. Both Putin and Musk, in their own way, have been enormously successful.

And how do you avoid falling into this trap? The most frequent advice given is to “stay humble”, which strikes me as the most contradictory advice ever given. If you were humble in the first place, you would almost by definition never get to be in a position where it would be necessary to be humble down the line. But what you can do, I guess, is to internalise the real reasons for your success, which may or may not include being right a lot of the time, and may be at least partly the result of the work of your colleagues.

Another piece of advice is to listen, really listen, to your longest-serving and most-trusted colleagues and friends. In fact, this last point is a good indication of when hubris is taking over, because when leaders start ousting their most reliable lieutenants, that’s a good sign things are about to go pear-shaped.

This too, I suspect, has its limits. Won’t your lieutenants be a little jealous of your success at the apex of your achievement? Will they give you the same advice at that moment that they would have given you at the start? Lieutenants also change, after all.

But generally, I think this is good advice. In some sense, we are who we choose as our associates and friends. If the festive season is about anything at all, it’s about refreshing your friendships, and that, it turns out, is much more valuable than it might seem. DM/BM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Michael Davies says:

    Once your eyes have been opened and you realize that half the leadership in the world, have personality disorders, you will never be the same again. Musk is a Narcissist and Putin is a Sociopath. This also means they cannot be cured and will just appear more insane, the older they get.

  • Chris Hill says:

    Reminds me of a story from years back so can’t remember the exact details. But a Japanese delegation were visiting a large business in India. The chairman of the Indian company was making a presentation when one of his minions stoped him and said he was talking rubbish, or words to that effect. The Japanese chap later said no one would be allowed to do that in Japan, to which the Indian said, ‘I pay these people a lot of money and if I’m talking rubbish them must tell me.’

  • Peter Atkins says:

    I disagree Tim, we need entrepreneurs but we don’t need dictators. Elon Musk has added great value to our world through Tesla and SpaceX and who knows what else he might come up with. And maybe Twitter will teach him a lesson in humility.

    • Bruce Sobey says:

      More than the companies he has founded, his management and thinking patterns have made a far wider impact. Anyone in management should watch Tim Dodd’s Starbase Tour with Elon Musk to learn his thinking.

  • A Z says:

    Another example of premeditated intent to not address anything of substance in what Musk is doing with Twitter; more to the point, what The Twitter Files indicate he is doing at Twitter. But don’t expect legacy media to report honestly on anything which challenges how compromised it has become. Just read The Twitter Files for yourself and make up your own mind.

    • A Z says:

      With apologies for the tautology.

    • Ed Rybicki says:

      “Legacy media”? Not prejudiced, much? Drunk the Kool-Aid, have we? And Musk has devastated Twitter by crippling the fact-checking and allowing all of the poisonous scum back on.

      • A Z says:

        Dear Ed, troubling ourselves to read widely enough, at least outside our echo chambers, is a refreshing, enlightening experience. I try to read many sides of most issues and what emerges is that just about every publication or channel has a clear agenda. And yes, the legacy media too. All the sacred cows. So, where possible, where it’s not being suppressed, censored, redacted or held back for release in 75 years, read the source material. Failing which, seek out journalists who DO have access to that material and who have a record of reporting with an independent mind, reporting facts with integrity and being non-aligned. Like Mark Heywood on this platform. In the case of Mr Musk which this article concerns itself with, read the work of equally independent minded journalists in The Twitter Files and make up your own mind. You may find much to trouble your convictions. Or not.

  • Andrew Southwood says:

    We should add Donald Trump into this group.

  • Petrus Kleinhans says:

    This reads like thin soup. But there is also something less benign to the pattern of discourse.

    Musk is still one of the richest men in the world. Still one of the most impactful entrepreneurs in history. Still one of the most extraordinary business managers the world has seen. Not much changed, in spite of what this writer thinks.

    The world’s richest person often changes. Ask Bill Gates and the self-same Bernard Arnaud, both of whom have been on and off the richest person’s “throne” a few times. If your wealth is the product of market behavior and the world is unstable, expect large percentage swings both up and down. Musk previously declared that Tesla was highly overvalued at its heights and therefore warned investors of a coming downswing.

    Must we really believe that anybody is “fallen” who: 1. sees their equity move down by 25% and 2. who would be unpopular with the audience of a comedy show or some other group, or 3. who disagrees with the writer on who has or does not have a right to air a public opinion?

    And a person “fallen” by these measurements, and if he appears “invulnerable”, must such a person seriously be associated with a man who sends armies to commit atrocities, and poisons his opposition?
    Musk is known for his statement that you have to love criticism because without criticism you cannot be better.

    Nobody is perfect and certainly, Musk is an imperfect man. It just appears to me this is a case of the highest tree catching the most wind.

  • Gregory Scott says:

    I disagree with trying to look at Musk and Putin through the same lens.
    In my mind, the difference between Musk and Putin is the value that they have added to the world, not just influence, but value.
    Musk has, to his credit, challenged and changed the trajectory of the space industry, the motor industry, energy storage(battery industry) and going forward the transport industry with his tunnel boring company. Musk has influenced and changed how tens of millions of people think about energy and the future.
    Perhaps someone else can list Putin’s value to the world?

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