It may have been a big hit for 19-year-old pop star Britney Spears in 2000, but “Oops, I Did It Again” is hardly a smart communications strategy. Yet, these days, some Twitter-happy leaders can’t seem to resist firing off ill-formed invectives with the forethought of an impulse-impaired mean girl.
And thank goodness for that.
In an era where more and more leaders are, ironically, less and less likely to offer unfiltered remarks, what leaders tweet is one of the most revealing public displays of their true character. A crisp, candid signal to stakeholders of all kinds about the thinking in the corner office when the comms folks aren’t there to spin it.
President Donald Trump and Tesla’s Elon Musk are prime examples.
First, Musk. By going after Business Insider’s Linette Lopez (accused of corruption and conspiracy), a heroic British cave diver (labeled “a pedo” for disparaging Musk’s mini-submarine rescue idea) and Sanford Bernstein analyst Toni Sac- conaghi (told “Boring, bonehead questions are not cool”), he’s offered ample evidence that, despite his brilliance, he’s also deeply insecure and thin-skinned—especially under pressure.
History tells us this kind of defensiveness is a bad sign in business leaders. Enron’s Jeff Skilling, for instance, had very similar retorts for analysts and reporters 17 years ago.
Then there’s the president. Trump’s first tweet was in May of 2009, promoting an appearance on the David Letterman Show, and since then he has gathered more than 20 million followers and tweeted out over 40,000 messages, or about a dozen a day. In his first year in office, he tweeted 2,548 messages, targeting everyone from Rosie O’Donnell and Arnold Schwarzenegger to members of his own cabinet and leaders of countries from North Korea to Canada, Europe and Iran. The “fake news” media is in a complete category of its own.
In October, former Google Talent Chief Laszlo Bock will keynote Chief Executive’s CEO Talent Summit at West Point, sharing exclusive insights into what makes great teams, and great leaders.
Some say it’s a strategy to divert public attention away from scandals and setbacks. But only 20 percent of U.S. adults and only 1 percent of Republican voters are on Twitter, so the main target is really the news media, which dutifully amplifies whatever message the president is looking to send that hour.
What’s really worth examining here is the trend: A telling study by linguists Jack Grieve and Isobelle Clarke from the UK’s University of Birmingham finds that as Trump grows in stature and power, his tweets become increasingly negative and defensive. His most commonly used terms on Twitter are schoolyard taunts like “loser,” “dumb” and “stupid.” The takeaway here is obvious, and it hardly projects—or inspires—confidence.
Of course, Musk and Trump are not the only leaders tweeting. The tweets of some of the most active business leaders on the platform self-classify into three categories:
BITERS. Trump, Musk, Travis Kalanik and activist investors Nelson Peltz, Carl Icahn, Bill Ackman and Paul Singer all fall in this group. They seem to lose ground, and stature, with each additional ad hominem attack and personal invective they blurt out on Twitter.
FIGHTERS. T-Mobile’s John Legere, JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon, ADP’s Carlos Rodriguez, Dunkin’ Brands’ Nigel Travis and Kevin Johnson of Starbucks all respond with factual corrections or genuine apologies—showing discipline and a cool confidence under stress.
COWARDS. Richard Smith, formerly of Equifax, Micky Arison of Carnival Cruise Lines, Steven Ells, formerly of Chipotle and, of course, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook hid from timely responses at times of public crises, missing the moment to restore needed trust.
In other words, sometimes not saying anything says it all.