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When he was editor of Time magazine, Walter Isaacson prided himself on being a nice, understanding boss and the magazine did well under that tutelage. But when he moved to ailing CNN, with its well-entrenched anchors and culture, trying to make friends with people and bring everyone along to a new place was ineffective. “I was really bad at running CNN,” he told journalist Kara Swisher on her podcast. “I needed to have been more of a disrupter.”

He was defending himself on the podcast from the accusation he was too understanding about Elon Musk’s toxic leadership in his biography of the billionaire entrepreneur with the vision of saving humanity through electric cars, space travel and devices to overcome paralysis, deafness and blindness. Mr. Isaacson’s books are always even-handed so there is much about Mr. Musk to dislike and also to admire in this one. At the core, in an era when kind, compassionate leadership is celebrated, it reminds us Mr. Musk is quite the opposite – unrelenting, often mean, routinely giving do-it-my-way-or-be-fired orders. Is that what it takes to build companies like Tesla and SpaceX? Do you have to be ruthlessly single-minded to be so successful?

The biography puts Mr. Musk’s behaviour in the context of a childhood with a brutal father, a Lord of the Flies summer camp, and playground beatings, as well as being autistic. Claire Boucher, the Vancouver singer-songwriter better known by her artistic name Grimes, who has been his on-and-off romantic partner in recent years, told the biographer because of his Asperger’s syndrome Mr. Musk is “not good at reading the room. His emotional comprehension is just very different from the average human … If someone has depression or anxiety, we sympathize. But if they have Asperger’s we say he’s an asshole.” Given his father, she adds, “he associates love with being mean or abusive.”

A lot of his tantrums – or is it brilliant leadership? – arise late at night, on the factory floor, when he fumes at how few people are still at work and hones in on concerns, demanding answers on reducing costs and overcoming what he calls “the idiot index” – the ratio of the total cost of a component to the cost of raw materials. If the raw materials cost $100 and the component $1,000 it suggests a design that is too complex or a manufacturing process that is too inefficient. The employee responsible is thus an idiot.

In one discussion on Raptor, a SpaceX engine, he turned to Lucas Hughes, a financial analyst in attendance who was sure Mr. Musk didn’t know his name given their limited interaction. “What are the best parts in Raptor as judged by the idiot index?” the boss asked. Mr. Hughes responded, “I am not sure. I will find out.” Mr. Musk’s face hardened, the biographer notes, and Gwynne Shotwell, the chief operating officer, looked worried.

Musk asked, with some profanity, how he could not know what the best and worst parts are? “I know the cost chart down to the smallest part. I just don’t know the cost of the raw materials of those parts.”

Musk continued to berate him, demanding to know the worst five parts – or at least one? He stopped the analyst from looking at his computer for help and when Mr. Hughes settled on the half nozzle jacket Mr. Musk asked its cost.

“I think a few thousand dollars,” Mr. Hughes said.

“No. It’s just steel,” the boss replied. “It’s about two hundred bucks. You have badly failed. If you don’t improve, your resignation will be accepted. This meeting is over. Done.”

The biographer later learned, from Ms. Shotwell, that the analyst had lost his first child – a daughter with a birth problem, never able to leave the hospital – seven weeks earlier. Mr. Isaacson didn’t mention that when he later asked Mr. Musk about the incident. “I give people hard core feedback, mostly accurate, and I try not to do it in a way that’s ad hominem,” Mr. Musk said, stressing the important point was whether they could improve after the feedback. “Physics does not care about hurt feelings. It cares about whether you got the rocket right.”

Mr. Hughes, who left the company a year later, said “Elon cares a lot about humanity, but humanity in more of a macro sense.” He added: “Working for Elon is one of the most exciting things you can do, but it doesn’t allow time for a lot else in your life. Some time that’s a great trade. If Raptor becomes the most affordable engine ever created and gets us to Mars then it may be worth the collateral damage. That’s what I believed for more than eight years. But now, especially after the death of our baby, it’s time for me to focus on other things in life.”

The book is replete with similar incidents – people departing, often praised by their fellow workers after being assailed by Mr. Musk, in a cold fury frenzy known as “demon mode.” He questions every cost. He has – and expects of others – a maniacal sense of urgency, often camping out on factory floors to make his point. He routinely asks people to cut schedules dramatically. Sometimes they surprise themselves and make the new deadline; other times they are just nudged ahead or, at the worst moments, into chaotic actions.

Since 2016, he has wrongly promised each year that we will see full self-driving become a reality in the coming year. Last Christmas, while you were gathering with family and forgetting about work, a small team was amateurishly and hastily moving Twitter’s servers as Mr. Musk refused to accept the schedule experts had given; it weakening the social network’s ability to handle traffic, in what he admitted was a mistake. Not the only big mistake he admits to, but then there are successes, many of them as well.

“Do the audaciousness and hubris that drive him to attempt epic feats excuse his bad behaviour, his callousness, his recklessness?” Mr. Isaacson asks at the end. “The answer is no, of course not. One can admire a person’s good traits and decry the bad ones. But it’s also important to understand how the strands are woven together, sometimes tightly. It can be hard to remove the dark ones without unravelling the whole cloth.”


  • Because high-value work these days is done by teams, not individuals, consultant Greg Satell says “traditional job descriptions lead us astray. They tend to focus on task-driven skills rather than collaboration and human skills. We need to change how we evaluate, recruit, manage and train talent.”
  • Advertising consultant Roy H. Williams believes that targeting the right customer is essential if you are a business selling to other businesses, but when you are selling a product or service to the public it works only about 10 per cent better than merely reaching out to the untargeted masses. If it costs more than 10 per cent for that targeting, reconsider.
  • How many things are you doing in your life right now to get back at somebody or prove them wrong, asks author Mark Manson. What would happen if you stopped?

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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