What Did 2023 Teach Us About Leadership? An Answer in the Form of Three Questions

By Martin Gutmann

After his takeover of Twitter in October of 2022, Elon Musk admonished his staff to be “extremely hardcore.” Many heeded the call, including Esther Crawford, who could be seen in a viral photo hunkering down in her sleeping bag on the office floor. This, apparently, was not hard-core enough—Crawford was fired in early 2023.

The start of a new year is a good time to look back and take stock of the personal stuff—did I eat enough vegetables?—the global—did the world become more sustainable—and everything in-between? So, what about leadership? In the world of how individuals influence, motivate, and coordinate the efforts of others, what were the big trends in 2023, what changed and what didn’t, and what does it all mean? 

In place of a crisp, social-media digestible answer, I’d like to propose three questions. A question is, of course, not an answer, but it’s not, as some might suggest, the opposite either. A better way to see them would be as a bridge between the years. They emerge from the events of 2023 and can help us make sense of events in 2024. 

And, just in case you were wondering, Elon will obviously feature in one of them. 

With that, here we go:

Question 1 – Will the leadership climate for women finally change?

A prominent feature in the last decade has been the push to get more women into leadership roles: onto boards, into the C-Suite, as referees on men’s pitches, and at the table of global politics. While there remains a significant gap between what should be and is, there has been a modicum of progress (though whether enough to warrant any form of celebration is questionable). 

Yet 2023 brought a stark deficit in this effort to the fore—one that threatens to undo the tenuous progress we’re making. Droves of women departed from top jobs in politics, business, and everything in between. Susan Wojcicki left YouTube, Jacinda Ardern and Nicola Sturgeon turned their backs on politics, and countless other women leaders came and went below the radar. 

Two points before we go on: 1. CEO turnover was great in general in 2023 and 2. women leave (or are fired) for multiple reasons and often don’t make these clear to the greater public. Despite these caveats, there is sufficient anecdotal evidence to suggest that the climate for women leaders in 2023 was very hostile. 

While Ardern and Sturgeon remained ambiguous on the point, their colleague Sigrid Kaag, head of the D66 party and Deputy Prime Minister of the Netherlands before her abrupt resignation in August did not mince her words. She resigned due to online “hate, intimidation, and threats” not just aimed at her but also targeting her children and husband.

What will 2024 hold? Let’s just say, I’m not optimistic.

Question 2 – Will we continue to tolerate toxic leadership?

The camping out on the office floor only to be fired episode at Twitter was not a one-off. Stories about Musk’s mercurial temper and ceaseless pressure on his employees abound. He proudly describes himself as a “nano-manager” (rumor has it, he insists on personally approving all new Tesla hires). In 2018, a Tesla manager told Wired, “If you said something wrong or made one mistake or rubbed him the wrong way, he would decide you’re an idiot and there was nothing that could change his mind.”

You don’t need a Ph.D. in psychology to see that such a management style causes anguish and emotional distress among all but the most resilient workers. In fact, the evidence is quite clear and persuasive: this style of leadership is bad for worker health and productivity, and, ultimately, bad for business

But Musk is not alone. In this regard, he is little more than an odious frontman for a group of (mostly) men who follow an authoritarian, workaholic style. 

Will such men at the helm continued to be tolerated in 2024? I for one am more hopeful on this question. As Scott Galloway writes in his predictions for 2024, “people are tired of childlike behavior from a near-senior citizen.” I couldn’t agree more. Musk’s time can’t come soon enough. Let’s hope it’s in 2024.

Question 3What comes of flexible work?

According to a KPMG survey, “over the past three years, almost 90 percent of surveyed companies have embraced workplace flexibility.” It’s a fairly safe bet to say that remote, flexible, home-office-friendly (whatever you want to call it) work is here to stay in one form or another in the high-skilled sectors. But that’s about as precise as any prediction can be. 

However, what we witnessed in 2023 was a backlash to this Corona-induced flexible work regime. Last year, Disney, Amazon, Black Rock and JPMorgan, to name but four prominent companies, scaled back their flexible work arrangements. Meta, too, redacted its fully-flexible model to three days in the office this past summer, because, according to Mark Zuckerberg, engineers working in person “get more done”.  

What might 2024 bring? Let’s just say that if The Times’s headline of 15 March 2023 is any indication—“Third of workers would quit if forced back into the office”—workers will not go down without a fight. 

This will be a particularly interesting question to keep an eye on because it gets to the heart of one of leadership’s great challenges: balancing growth and relational priorities with performance and task completion. Where will leaders come down on this one? This is a tough one…we will just have to wait and see. 

The takeaway

While these questions are sundry, they speak to one common takeaway:

Leaders can do better to ensure a positive working environment.

For women to stay—not to mention succeed—in leadership roles (or any other role for that matter), they need the same respect and benefit-of-the-doubt atmosphere that men have. 

For companies to thrive in the long run, they need happy, healthy and productive employees—this requires leaders who are empathetic, not toxic. If the problem is with the top boss, boards will need to put their foot down.

Continuing to allow flexible working arrangements would go hand in hand with both of these efforts.

About the Author

Martin GutmannMartin Gutmann is a Professor at the Lucerne School of Business, Switzerland and the author of The Unseen Leader: How History Can Help Us Rethink Leadership. 

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