Elon Musk’s Year of Living Dangerously
Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, has been in the news every day this summer. What drives this iconic entrepreneur and designer? What has the future in store for the entrepreneur? By Hans van der Loo and Patrick Davidson.
By using only nine words in a Twitter message, Elon Musk not just unleashed a PR storm, but also caused a lot of confusion. Those nine words were: “Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.”
Musk’s tweet sent shock waves through Wall Street. When Musk tweeted his message, no one knew whether it was real or just a way to divert attention from the production problems he is struggling with at Tesla, his electric car manufacturing company.
To allay fears and to clarify his position, Musk gave a candid interview to the New York Times in which he indicated that he felt both stressed and overworked but suggested he was incapable of changing his work habits.
Like others, we are deeply impressed by Musk’s vision and achievements. We first came across him when we began conducting research for a book about ‘wavemakers’: leaders and followers who not only flourish in dynamic times, but also manage to create waves of change themselves.
Whilst researching the book, we repeatedly encountered the super entrepreneur and visionary Elon Musk. We were fascinated by his industries so we decided to put our original book project on hold and write a book about him instead. More than two years later, it becomes apparent that his maniacal work behaviour not only brings success, but also, increasingly, leads to negative reactions. And with regard to his impact, more and more questions were asked about the effectiveness of his actions.
In Musk Mania, we also tried to predict how Musk’s story would develop. We looked at three possible scenarios. The first involved Musk ruling the world.
The second scenario considered possible setbacks in the mass production of electric cars. In this scenario, Musk would be forced to sell Tesla and focuses on his real passion: space travel. The third scenario was the most pessimistic. In that scenario, we examined what would happen if Musk’s health collapsed. Could he die as a result of a heart attack. That would be the end of all dreams.
While we wrote about these scenarios, we obviously knew that real life never follows the script. But if we look back over the events of the past two years, we see some striking similarities between the last two scenarios and the actual events that transpired.
Although there were successes, especially in the field of space travel, Musk’s last few years have been dominated by an accumulation of problems and setbacks. As a result, his image has suffered considerably. The image of the successful wunderkind is gone. Musk is usually in the news for all the wrong reasons: missed deadlines, falling share prices, crashed cars and abuses in the workplace.
But Musk is still known as a man of visionary hope. He paved the way with lots of exciting projects: fast and beautifully designed electric cars, inspiring space missions, vertical landing missiles, advanced batteries and ultra-fast-moving means of transport. Not only does he believe in a better future, he also possesses the ability to know what’s achievable and what’s not.
As such, Musk is much more than a guru who announces utopian dreams. He acts from the firm faith that his dreams will become reality. One day. Soon. If you show enough commitment to make hope come true. Hope is an inexhaustible source of energy, from which you can not only draw yourself, but which you can also transfer to others – fans, followers, partners, politicians. This creates waves that set the world in motion.
Those waves of change, initiated by Musk, have become rare nowadays. Instead, we are confronted with the perils of ‘down to earth’ issues such as Musk and his company not delivering a car.
In this case, his failure to deliver on the of the new Tesla Model 3, a car for which more than 400,000 people made downpayment of $1,000 dollar for a car that did not even exist, prompted Musk to excel.
Musk has spoken of working day and night, on average 120 hours a week and finding himself caught in a “production hell” comparing this his predicament to those of Dante’s Inferno. Dante described hell as an area consisting of nine circles, each characterized by an individual characteristic.
“Let’s say level ninth is the worst. OK? Well we were in level nine” Musk said in a Tweet, as if the reference to medieval literature was his daily bread. “I was very depressed about the situation and decided to work on the solution with all my strength. I moved my workspace to the Gigafactory (the futuristic battery factory he had built in Nevada) and stayed here day and night for many weeks.”
The reference to Dante was a communicative master stroke by Musk. By creating the image that he was in the grip of devilish powers, Musk prevented critical questions about his role in the problems. The image that remained was that of the vulnerable, but oh so brave hero trying to escape the deepest caves of hell in a determined way. Instead of criticism, Musk reaped goodwill for the fearless way in which he had dealt with his problems.
“Referring to master poet Dante was a
communicative master move by Musk”
Production problems were not his only concern this year. The declining share price of Tesla and the increasingly negative tone with which financial analysts treated him and his company were another source of concern. The way Musk replied to these counter-waves varied from tormented irritation to plain rudeness. In other words: not up to standard for someone aiming to transform industries to make the world a better place to live.
Specific questions, by experts doing their job, about the financial status of his company were dismissed as ‘inappropriate’ or ‘stupid’. Musk also continued to show his special type of humour by announcing the bankruptcy of Tesla on the second Easter day of this year. In a Tweet, he reported that his company was completely down and out. To illustrate the malaise, he distributed a photo that showed him surrounded by bottles of ‘Teslaquilla’ lying half unconsciously against a Model 3. The joke appeared to be a very expensive one. Shareholders panicked and the share price lost more than 8% of its value.
Musk showed the same type of recalcitrant behaviour in his reaction to problems in the Tesla workplace. From his robot-dominated and most often described as ‘futuristic’ Tesla-factory in Fremont, came a stream of complaints about aggressive production goals and inhumane work pressure. Issues about employee safety were raised.
“I saw people passing out and even falling to the floor, hitting their heads,” said one an employee in a newspaper article. Musk was also criticised for the unfriendly character of the Tesla culture towards women.
Musk’s reactions were utterly disconcerting as he downplayed allegations on the grounds that no one worked harder than him. The many accidents at the factory were labelled as incidents. And as far as the allegations of bias towards women, he proclaimed that we simply do not live in a perfect world.
When you take a good look at the issues and situations mentioned above – which, incidentally, are only a summary of what has happened – you can draw different conclusions.
Let’s start with the most positive one: in changing history you just happen to encounter some challenging situations and problems along the way. Musk has been here before. You might argue that 2018 is just another year. In 2008, Tesla and his space company SpaceX nearly went bankrupt only to enter a period of growth and record breaking achievements.
Musk has an ability to convince people to believe in positive and impossible scenarios? He distracts people by drawing their attention to the spectacular. When he’s under pressure, he announces his intention to send a mission to Mars. He draws peoples attention to his past achievements but he is only human after all and not a machine. What is becoming clear is that needs to reboot, relax and focus. Whether he is capable of this is questionable, however.
Hans Van Der Loo and Patrick Davidson are the authors of Musk Mania: Elon Musk’s Five Insane Principles of Success published by Maverick House.