being a role model, building character, role models, working

4 Lessons Elon Musk (and the rest of us) can Learn from Haraldur Thorleifsson

On the top of my bucket list is a visit to Iceland. And while I’m there, I hope to find Haraldur Thorleifsson at his new restaurant, enjoying his latest success.

I’d like to meet a role model like him.

In a world gone mad these days, where it’s commonplace to mock the disabled, to dismiss those who might be different or who might have a different voice, Thorleifsson recently stood up for himself and gave us some important reminders.

The backstory, for those who might not know, is that Haraldur Thorleifsson, an Icelandic entrepreneur and businessman, was recently locked out of his job at Twitter and took to the platform to confront Elon Musk, himself, when it wasn’t clear if he’d actually been fired.

Indeed, he had been fired without being informed; but that’s not the story here. The story is that Musk, when confronted, first asked Thorleifsson to produce a report of the work he had been doing. He then tweeted that, based on the list provided, Thorleifsson clearly “did no actual work,” which Musk appeared to define as typing and having pictures to prove work accomplished.

The exchange gets worse and worse from there (if such a thing is possible) and eventually led to HR informing that Thorleifsson that he was, indeed, fired. Musk apologized eventually – a totally irrelevant afterthought.

Why irrelevant? I find so many faults with this encounter that I’ve been stewing since I read about it. We can all (I think we can all, at least I hope we can all) agree that Musk’s behavior was so egregious as to be preposterous. We could just write it off; no one “normal” would act like that.

Except they would. And they do, even if only in smaller, far less brash ways. And for this reason, I think the story is worth addressing. And the lessons, the universal lessons, are worth considering. Here are a few of my take-aways.

  1. Role models matter. No, we don’t just shake our heads and say “Oh there goes crazy Musk again. What will the guy do next.” People with power like he has matter; their words matter, their interactions matter, and their behavior matters. By dismissing him or writing it off as just something this crazy guy did, we are belittling the real damage it has done and the message that it has conveyed to underdogs everywhere. We see this from far too many leaders, too often. It’s possible to see this, perhaps, in our own lives as well. You might have a friend who always says slightly off-color remarks or who makes you just the least bit uncomfortable for one reason or another and everyone writes it off as, “Oh there they go again,” or “Oh, he’s just being his silly self.” But we don’t have to stand for it; no matter who “we” are or how “silly” or “innocuous” the words or actions might be, they matter. And our comfort and self-worth matter. And even more so, we are all role models. Yes, Charles Barkley has famously argued that he shouldn’t be your kid’s role model just because he can throw a ball. But I beg to differ. As Carl Malone famously wrote, “We don’t choose to be role models. We are chosen. Our only choice is whether to be a good role model or a bad one.” And this is true for each of us as parents, friends, co-workers, bosses, community members, politicians and more.
  2. Work can be defined in so many ways. The idea that it doesn’t “count” if you can’t take a screen capture of your work is terrifying. Yes, even in the high-tech world, there are so many ways to work. And there are so many ways to value work whether you’re an HR specialist, a first grade teacher, a trash collector, a therapist, an artist or an engineer. Work does not have to appear in the conventional way that so many of us assume it does; we would benefit from shifting our understanding of productivity, output and success.
  3. Interactions matter. In the social media age, so much is expressed in faceless soundbites and it’s incredibly easy to forget that you’re typing to (or at) another human being with feelings, views, dreams and fears. Make sure you have all the facts before you use the keyboard – and remember that there is a person on the other end. This is especially true with power imbalances.
  4. There are many kinds of abilities. It’s very hard to know what other people are going through and experiencing. While one person’s limitations may be visible, another’s might be a debilitating physical sickness with no outward signs or a mental health struggle. But they are real and no one, at any time, should be belittled for the obstacles they face or the ways that they work to surmount them.

Many of today’s role models around the world – whether they come from political, social or economic streams – don’t seem to be models for much of anything. It is up to us to point out these deficiencies and to let them serve as teaching moments for our children, our peers and ourselves; we deserve better, we can do better, and we can create that “better” by the way that we act and interact in the world around us.

3 thoughts on “4 Lessons Elon Musk (and the rest of us) can Learn from Haraldur Thorleifsson

  1. This morning, I was thinking about how my father never once told me to be reliable. When I was 15 years old, working at a hot dog stand after school, I missed the bus to work. When I called my father, he left a business meeting explaining to his high-level clients that his daughter was going to be late for work unless he left now to take her there. It was a hot dog stand! They totally understood. He was furious with me, but one thing you can say about me… I value being reliable. It’s a top priority, and I will go to great lengths to be reliable.

  2. So well written with excellent arguments. Elon Musk, and numerous other “role models”
    need to think before they act and to consider others.

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