Ken Goldstein: What's Eating Brother Elon?
Updated: Mar 29
Let’s start with what needs to be said before all else: I am an enormous fan of Elon Musk. I think he is quite likely the most important and visionary entrepreneur today leading the way in technology, business, and innovation. He walks in the American continuum of Edison, Disney, Gates, and Jobs. I wrote as much in a post dating back to 2014.
So when a guy as brilliant as Musk goes sideways, I start to ask myself some questions. Like, what’s up with all the weirdness?
Clearly I have no ability to understand what’s going on in this amazing individual's life, other than to observe the monumental toll that stress can take on even the mightiest of titans. To guess at what might be at the root of Musk's recent unpleasant run in the headlines would seem a fool’s errand.
While I am unable to fashion an informed evaluation of why Musk appears in many ways to be undermining his own success of late, I am thinking about the learning that might be had from observing his stress. I am reasonably certain he will have no interest in my reflections of what his behavior could be telling us, but perhaps this will provide a mirror for others on what some of this means and how it possibly could be addressed.
Here are five simple thoughts on that.
Focus is No Small Trick
Can one person really be an effective CEO at more than one company? It’s hard enough to be a decent CEO period. Now add longevity to the CEO run and enormous competitive forces, and you start to wonder if running both Tesla (after integrating SolarCity) and SpaceX is remotely possible. Let's also not forget that Musk is additionally CEO of Neuralink and The Boring Company. If you have ever been CEO of a high growth company or even know one up close and personal, you are aware that the job requires super-human energy, and even then the clock is always ticking against the corner office. Musk is beyond super-human, not only as a leader but as a founder who tackles some of the most difficult problems of our day. Will he succeed at all of his goals? I am sure a lot of investors and customers are counting on that, but wouldn't the odds be more in his favor if he narrowed the scope of his personal agenda and delegated authority with a much broader brush?
A Competitive Advantage is Not Forever
Tesla has created leading edge, clean exhaust automobiles. These electric vehicles are as beautiful and luxurious as anyone could have hoped to imagine. Most Tesla owners are evangelists for the company and fiercely loyal to the brand. There is no question that Tesla has been an inspired market leader, but all it takes is one visit to the showrooms of other luxury car companies and you start to see that high-end electric cars are on a fast path to becoming commodities under many brands. BMW and Jaguar already are introducing competitive product lines. Others are on the way. Staying ahead of the pack is its own form of madness and a lot less fun than introducing first-of-a-kind category killers. Can playing king of the hill without a summit in sight have a troubling impact on the psyche? How can it not?
Production Efficiency is as Difficult as Innovation
Why hasn’t a new auto manufacturer in the U.S. survived at scale beyond the Big Three? The bulk of car buyers want cheap—most consumers don’t have an option to spend more, so the entrenched behemoths take small margins to achieve broad sales and then make money in other ways like service and financing. When you are playing with other people’s money, the demands of Wall Street can be insanely demanding. It’s hard to make big bucks selling very few cars. While Model S and Model X are both category-defining luxury cars, they remain low volume production units with difficult margin economics given their scale. Model 3, the lost-cost mass-market entry, is supposed to change the scale of Tesla, but realizing the dream of high-volume, low-cost, low-margin automobile economics seems precisely what is eating away at our hero. Is the problem perhaps not solvable with the reality of capital constraints all businesses face? Is there another business model beyond manufacturing that Tesla might want to explore with respect to the investment burden they carry?
A lot of people at the upper echelons of business take pride in working themselves to death, or at least appearing to be doing so. I will admit I am personally not beyond this criticism, and have winced more than once when listening to colleagues celebrate the notion of work-life balance even in the most competitive environments. Many leaders demonstrate manic obsession in their devotion to their enterprises, and it is hard to argue a company can be at the top of its game with a standard forty hour work week. That said, no matter how much we wish to argue the contrary, we are human, our bodies have limits, and when we cross our own lines of practicality, we can become counterproductive. Sleep matters. Nutrition matters. Some relief from stress is necessary to be consistent in exercising good judgment and productive reasoning. When our vitalitybreaks down, it is only a matter of time before we collapse or the responsibilities we own become compromised.
Authenticity Does Not Require Unrestrained Drama
The modern workforce is not put off when a boss exhibits some vulnerability. Relationships defined by org charts actually can be strengthened when a manager exhibits humility toward his or her own limitations. Leaders who acknowledge that emotions and potential exhaustion set them on a level playing field with peers and subordinates can foster a dynamic environment of trust and support. That doesn't mean employees and other stakeholders want executives to ramble, wander, or become media fodder. Remember that old saying, "When you're in a hole, stop digging." Random proclamations to shareholders and needlessly quirky public appearances can leave deep craters on the social graph. All organizations want some form of predictability in the leaders they choose to follow. When they lose confidence in top management because of repeated, silly, and unnecessary antics that can demoralize their aspirations, they can make another choice. They vote with their feet.
I am rooting for Elon Musk to win, for SpaceX even more than Tesla, because he has proven that not only government bureaucracies can build dependable rockets. That is forcing innovation around reusability in space exploration and keeping admirable government spending on otherworldly travel in check. While I probably can't put a dent in Musk's corrective arc (which I want to believe is on the horizon), perhaps I can open the eyes of a few mere mortals to the underlying tension of his story. Perhaps your story of stress and self-expectation has similar subplots of immovable market forces. What could you be doing to course correct that might give Musk reason to pay attention?
About the Author...
Ken Goldstein is the author of three books, This is Rage: A Novel of Silicon Valley and Other Madness; Endless Encores: Repeating Success through People, Products, and Profits; and From Nothing: A Novel of Technology, Bar Music, and Redemption, all published by The Story Plant.