Harvard expert: The Twitter deal could be bad for Elon Musk—and for the rest of us

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Elon Musk's controversial bid to buy Twitter could be bad news — for both the world's richest person and the general public, a Harvard expert says.

The pending $44 billion acquisition of the social media platform could financially damage Musk's other companies, keep his eyes away from crucial research and development efforts and negatively impact the country's public discourse, says Bill George, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School and former CEO of medical technology company Medtronic.

"Twitter is a distraction that could keep [Musk] from what's really important," George, who has studied leadership failures over the past two decades, tells CNBC Make It. "And it could do society more harm than good."

Musk's track record would seem to bode well for Twitter. From PayPal to Tesla and SpaceX, the tech billionaire had a hand in building some of the world's most influential and valuable companies. Musk could also represent a fresh start for the platform: Last year, Twitter dealt with a federal whistleblower complaint on privacy and content moderation, and reports that executives weren't doing enough to address content that sexually exploits children.

George disagrees, saying bosses who lose sight of their beliefs and values — the subject of "True North: Leading Authentically in Today's Workplace, Emerging Leader Edition," a book George co-wrote in August — are often on track to fail in some way. Musk is at risk of falling into that category, he adds.

Here's why, and what that failure might look like, according to George:

The deal could end up harmful to Musk

To date, Musk's work at Tesla and SpaceX has been extraordinary, George says: Tesla's suite of electric vehicles has pushed the automobile industry toward a greener future, and SpaceX made history by launching the world's first all-civilian spaceflight last year.

Adding Twitter into the mix could prevent the tech billionaire from focusing on what he does best: "being the greatest inventor of our era," George says.

Musk has already spent the past six months "getting distracted" by the acrimonious Twitter takeover he first proposed in April, George says. That includes months of litigation over Musk's attempt to pull out of the deal, which could soon come to a head: Last week, a Delaware judge ruled that Musk has until Oct. 28 to close his acquisition if he wants to avoid a trial.

Tesla shares dipped to $223.07 on Friday, marking its worst week since the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. The company's market cap is $674.11 billion as of Wednesday afternoon, down from $1.14 trillion at the beginning of April.

"It's a sign he needs to focus more on Tesla. Its market cap is dependent on the company's rapid growth and his ability to invent," George says.

Musk and Tesla didn't immediately respond to CNBC Make It's request for comment. In May, Musk tried to quell concerns about him getting distracted by the Twitter deal, saying "Tesla is on my mind 24/7" during an investor call.

The deal could be bad news for everyone else, too

Musk's inventions "genuinely help society and the world at large," George says. Twitter could get in the way of that, keeping Musk from refining his older products and inventing new ones, he adds.

The billionaire's reported vision for Twitter as a free-speech platform could also harm the public, George says.

In April, Musk said he wanted to drastically reduce Twitter's content moderation to allow any speech that doesn't violate the laws of a given country — potentially increasing the amount of hate speech on the platform, even in the U.S., some experts say. Hate speech that starts on social media platforms doesn't always stay online: It can escalate to real-life violence, racism and discrimination, as the United Nations' website notes.

Musk has also said he prefers "time-outs" to permanent bans on the platform, announcing in May that he would reverse Twitter's suspension of former president Donald Trump. Trump was banned from Twitter shortly after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

"Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated," Musk said in a statement in April.

George says permitting free speech on Twitter without any "reasonable restraint" is a mistake, noting that disparaging rhetoric could harm the users the platform currently aims to protect. Human rights activists have echoed this concern.

"The last thing we need is a Twitter that willfully turns a blind eye to violent and abusive speech against users, particularly those most disproportionately impacted, including women, non-binary persons, and others," Michael Kleinman, Amnesty International USA's director of technology and human rights, said in a statement in April.

Ultimately, George says he hopes Musk will primarily focus on Tesla and the work that's already in front of him, regardless of whether or not the Twitter deal goes through.

"I would like to see him get back to inventing things and focusing on that," George says. "He's made a huge difference in society with the companies he manages now, and that's where should apply his gift of inventing."

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