Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are Brilliant and Insightful – But Terrible Bosses

Why Did They Find It So Hard to be Decent Leaders?


Credit Where It Is Due

Let’s start out on some positive notes, and an update on Bezos.

First, there is no doubt that both Bezos and Musk are brilliant and driven people. They are driven to excel at a level most people could not comprehend. Both have taken significant risks and routinely thought out of that proverbial box. Both persevered long after others would have given up.

And we should note that Bezos no longer runs Amazon, having been “replaced” by Andy Jassy. That statement is in quotation marks since Bezos still owns the company and thus can well actuate any ideas or priorities he might have.

In short, both of these guys have the security and ability to do things right by their people and set examples. But they have not chosen to do so. As we enter the holiday season, it seems fair to ask:
What is wrong with these two? Why do they seem so blind towards their employees?

Is the Problem Empathy? Are These Guys Just Too Different?

 One factor may be that neither of these guys have ever become accustomed to feeling accountable to anyone else. Both owned their companies outright. Musk now has some shareholders, but not enough to sway his perspective of an independent actor. A casual review of his tweets easily confirms that.

There could, of course, be a simple phycological make up that does not include any level of sympathy, less more empathy, but I suspect this lone cowboy mentality under which both reached their current levels is more of a factor.

Stories about both being just clueless, and not all that interested, in employee morale or welfare. It appears that they simply see their employees as resources, and expendable at that.

Bezos has made much of the fact that his starting wages are much higher than most but seems confused when people cite all the other factors of the work environment, including a terrible safety record.  He has said that he welcomes turnover – no interest in growing management from within.

Success Does NOT Depend on Harsh Employment

 The really sad part of all this is that such an approach is not necessary for business success. Far more policies have been followed for long terms by more enlightened companies, with great success.

Remember the small factory owner in New England who, a few years ago, restructured the company (including his own assets) to pay everyone in the company a minimum of $70,000 a year. People said he was nuts, would go broke. He did not. The company continued to do well, and his employees are fiercely loyal.

We all know the contrasting examples of Walmart vs. Costco. Walmart is doing better these days, including some impressive offers to help with higher education costs. But it is still possible to work full time at Walmart in some areas and still qualify for public assistance. That means you and I underwrite Walmart’s business costs.

Costco, on the other hand, has always paid well, has generous and comprehensive bonus and compensation programs, and promote from within. The result? Near zero turnover, happy employees who transmit that feeling to customers, and a long line of people eager to work for them. Employee theft is about zero. Costco sees their employees as valuable assets and human partners. It works.

Making the Case for Unions

 Over and above the humanity of it all, one would think that companies that do not wish to be unionized would see the logic of employees not feeling agreived enough to seek union representation.

 The fate of the American worker has gone down demonstrably in parallel with the decline in union membership. Companies and right-wing sources have convinced a striking number (no pun intended) of workers to vote against their own self-interest in resisting union support.

This is a bad call on their part, but many state governments (so-called right to work states) are coconspirators in this process. Most companies will go out of their way to set up operations in such states as opposed to those with better records of worker representation.

Still, if I ran a company and wanted to avoid union issues, I would go quite a distance to ensure my employees felt well treated and listened to by management. The fact that Amazon and Tesla do not will, in time, catch up with them.

Maybe the Post Pandemic Era Will Drive Change

The pandemic has changed a lot of workplace dynamics. Salaries are up. Benefits are growing perceptively. Competition for workers is fierce. People are quitting and retiring at record rates. Who knows, maybe these changes will drive some changes in workplace environments at places now falling short so profoundly. One can hope.

Failure to do better here will eventually harm individual companies, degrade our society, and give people one more reason to think that capitalism and humanism cannot coexist. They can coexist of course – actually better so than humanism and socialism, if history is any guide. But neither is foreordained.

Too many in our billionaire class seem clueless about all this. May the price for being so get to be unbearable.

Bill Clontz

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