In the 1890s, they were known as “Robber Barons,” wealthy industrialists who created powerful corporations like Standard Oil, Carnegie Steel, and the American Tobacco Company that monopolized industries, dominated workers, and used their enormous concentration of wealth to control Congress and state legislatures.
From the 1970s until his death in 2010, George Steinbrenner, owner of the New York Yankees, was the quintessential “The Boss.” He earned the title because of his high-handed intrusive management style. Steinbrenner was notorious for enforcing his own set of rules and ignoring legalities. In 1974, he was forced to plead guilty to making illegal contributions to Richard Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign and to obstruction of justice in order to avoid imprisonment and he was suspended from baseball for two years. In 1990, Steinbrenner was banned from baseball again after he paid a gambler to discredit one of the Yankee’s star players.
From 2004 to 2016, Donald Trump played “The Boss” on the NBC reality television show “The Apprentice” with the catchphrase “You’re fired!” Trump’s over-the-top persona and autocratic management style brought him a large following and helped him secure the Republican Party nomination for President in 2016 and the election that fall. Trump, as President, just as in the television show, was an autocratic boss, undisciplined, idiosyncratic, self-serving, and an inveterate liar who was prepared to bring the country down around him to advance or protect his position. He claimed to be a billionaire, but frequently managed to pay no taxes and now faces fraud charges.
The newest autocrat to don the crown of “The Boss” is Elon Musk of Tesla, SpaceX, and Twitter. Musk was born in South Africa, migrated to Canada when he was 18, and then to the United States to attend college. He somehow manages to hold South African, Canadian, and United States citizenship all at the same time.
Musk, who made his initial money through the development of the online payment company, PayPal, has a history of making false, downright dumb statements, about the COVID pandemic, calling for the arrest of Dr. Anthony Fauci, in support of crypto currencies as the wave of the future, and dismissing the attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband. As a self-professed libertarian, Musk opposes government subsidies for corporations, but that has not stopped him from securing billions of dollars in subsidies from various states and the federal government for his Tesla Corporation. In his management of Twitter, he professes to believe in unrestrained free speech, except for those who are critical of him.
Musk purchased the social media company Twitter in October 2022 for an estimated $44 billion and turned it into his privately owned company. In his first two months as the Twitter boss, Musk fired half the staff, gutted the verification program, drove away major advertisers, reinstated previously banned racist, anti-Semitic, and conspiracy users, declared war on Apple, stopped paying rent on the company’s San Francisco office, made unsubstantiated accusations about the company’s former CEO, and sent out his own bizarre tweets. He ran a poll of Twitter users promising to quit as its manager if a majority wanted him out, and when they voted he should leave, he didn’t.
Musk’s management style is basically the same at Tesla where there is no management structure other than Musk at the top of the corporate pyramid. According to Garrett Nelson, a senior equity research analyst at CFRA, an investment research firm Musk “has such a large personality, the impression is that the company is weak without him and that nothing happens without his approval.” Tesla’s and Musk’s worth have sharply declined as Musk spends more and more time mismanaging Twitter. Tesla, which pioneered the electric car market, has other problems as well. Ford, General Motors, and Hyundai have introduced their own competing electric car models in the United States and Cadillac and Nissan are preparing to enter the market. In Europe, Volkswagen and Audi sell more electric cars than Tesla and in China local electric car manufacturers are out-selling Musk. Tesla’s market value was over $1 trillion before Musk announced he was buying Twitter. In less than eight months, Tesla lost almost two-thirds of its value.
Despite his corporate misadventures, a number of tech industry private equity billionaires have supported Musk’s handling of Twitter in an outpouring of praise for “bossism.” Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix, called Musk “the bravest, most creative person on the planet.”
Partners at Andreessen Horowitz, an influential venture capital firm, and private equity investor Gavin Baker are “inspired by Elon.” Roy Bahat, a venture capitalist with Bloomberg Beta, argues Musk “says the things many C.E.O.s wish they could say, and then he actually does them” and calls his tenure at Twitter a “living natural experiment” — a divisive but illuminating window into what other executives might be able to get away with, if they tried.” Musk is “giving people a lot more knowledge of what’s possible.” Antonio García Martínez, a crypto currency entrepreneur, believes Musk is leading “a revolt by entrepreneurial capital” against “ESG grifters” and “Skittles-hair people” working at companies like Twitter.
John Ganz, writing on Substack, called the ideology and management approach of Musk and his supporters “bossism.” Ganz defines “bossism” as the belief that the entrepreneurs who created and manage major tech companies have permitted the “entitled, lazy, overly woke people who work for them” too much freedom with perks, flexible hours, and remote work and that they need to reclaim their authority. Coinbase, Kraken, Basecamp, and Meta have all implemented at least some of Musk’s slash-and-burn tactics towards their employees.
Fascist, neo-fascist, and authoritarian dictators also could claim the title “The Boss” and their actions in the past were even more disastrous. Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler were responsible for starting World War II, the destruction of their own countries, Italy and Germany, and the death of between 70 and 85 million people (estimates vary). As Secretary-General of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, is probably responsible for 12 million deaths through wartime actions, political purges. and failed policies including one that caused famine in Ukraine. Some scholars suggest that Mao Ze dong in China may be the worst “Boss” of all. His blindness to consequences during the Great Leap Forward, from roughly 1958 to 1962, led to death by starvation and disease of as many as 55 million people.
The 21st century has seen the emergence of a wave of new authoritarian anti-democratic “Bosses “in Hungary, Turkey, Myanmar, and Russia, with Putin in Russia so far being the most dangerous. His unprovoked war on Ukraine in an effort to rebuild the Russian empire may have cost Ukraine a trillion dollars, Russia as much as $100 billion. and the global economy almost $3 trillion. The United States has already spent about $20 billion in support of Ukraine. Between 15 million to 30 million Ukrainians have become refugees because of a war that has probably led to the death of 40,000 Ukrainian civilians. Putin “the Boss” seems to be completely unable to accept any questioning of his goals and strategies, another feature of “bossism.”
Musk does face some domestic challengers for the title of “The Boss.” James Dolan, the billionaire who owns Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden and mismanages perpetual losing sports teams, the New York Knicks and Rangers, had his company install facial recognition technology at the entrances to the arenas so he could keep out lawyers from law firms involved in suits against his company. The lawyers now have another reason to sue Dolan.
Given the history of “Bossism” in the 20th century and so far in the 21st century, you would think capitalist praise for Elon Musk would be more muted. But they apparently are waiting expectantly to see the results of his “living natural experiment.” They should watch the Mel Brook’s classic “Silent Movie” (1976) where he named the villainous company Engulf & Devour. The CEO opens a Board meeting with a prayer. “Oh Mighty Dollar, We pray to Thee, For without Thee, We are in The Crapper.” During the meeting, the CEO starts to bark, howl, and drool like a rabid dog.
Comments are closed on this story.