Update on Tesla – is Elon Musk an Asshole?

Set aside your sensibilities for a few minutes and hang in with me for this blog. Chances are, if you read on, you are not one of them.

Friend, keep watching the news about personalities at the head of major innovation leaders, as this news will reveal a great deal about how you as a CEO / Founder Vision Master might want to behave to increase your chances with investors and for your company’s future.  Truly, you really don’t have to be an asshole to be a successful Vision Master, and in fact, the evidence is to the contrary.

Let me define “asshole”  (a technical term in this case) as in the book Assholes, a Theory by philosopher Aaron James.  In this work, he defines an “asshole” as someone who:

  1.  Allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically;
  2. Does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement;
  3. Is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.

Now I’m going to allow for the possibility that someone of extraordinary intelligence and originality like Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs (deceased) may, in fact, deserve special advantages and may even be entitled to them.  What makes the brilliant and creative person at this level cross the line into being an “asshole” is the completely unnecessary (except psychologically perhaps) and in fact dangerous self-immunization against the complaints of other people.  To my mind, this reflects a weakness of character, not the entitlement of brilliance.  What’s the weakness and what’s the price they pay?

The weakness is that “assholes” self-identify with their brilliance, defining themselves as different and better than all others, out of fear that everything else about them is somehow inferior, unlovable or unacceptable.  If you find this painfully close to the truth, then chances are you’re NOT an asshole, because a true asshole wouldn’t recognize himself in this paragraph.  A true asshole probably wouldn’t even read this blog. If you recognize some truth in this statement, there’s hope for you and you may be a jerk, not an asshole.

The price that true assholes pay is that, as said above, they don’t get the benefit of feedback from others, even other brilliant types.  Out of fear of weakness, they’re closed off to it, shielded from it.  They just can’t hear it.  If for example, Elon Musk is an asshole and not just brilliant or even just a jerk, then he will not hear the advice given by others, even by others who admire or love him, that he needs management help.  I don’t know Musk well enough (having had one conversation at a dinner party once) to say for sure that he is or isn’t a true “asshole.”  His behavior does hint at it.  Let’s take a look at his behavior and how others advise him:

At Tesla, my earlier statement that Chairperson Robyn Denholm is not Elon Musk’s “adult supervision” in any meaningful way was confirmed by Musk himself in an interview with CBS’s 60 Minute’s Lesley Stahl last week.  The subject came up in conversation about Musk’s tweets, specifically with the SEC requirement that tweets be pre-approved (by an internal oversight person or group) if they contain, or reasonably could contain, information material to the Company or its shareholders.  Musk claimed “The only tweets that would have to be, say, ‘reviewed’ would be if a tweet had a probability of causing a movement in the stock [price],” Musk told Stahl. “Otherwise, it’s, ‘hello, first amendment.’ Like, freedom of speech is fundamental.”

Stahl missed the opportunity to catch Musk on the main point that it’s not just stock movement that the SEC is concerned about, but went ahead and tried to catch him on a more subtle point, which did lead to an interesting response from Musk:

STAHL: “But how do they know if it’s going to move the market if they’re not reading all of them before you send them?”

MUSK: “Well, I guess we might make some mistakes. Who knows?”

STAHL: “Are you serious?”

MUSK: “Nobody’s perfect.” [Laughs.]

STAHL: “Look at you.”

MUSK: “I want to be clear, I do not respect the SEC. I do not respect them”

STAHL: “But you’re abiding by the settlement, aren’t you?”

MUSK: “Because I respect the justice system.”

Later in the interview, Musk was asked about his company’s new chairperson, Robyn Denholm, who replaced him as part of the settlement. The “impression was that [Denholm] was put into kind of watch over you,” Stahl said. Typically, the job of the chairperson of a board of directors is to serve as the CEO’s boss.

“That’s not realistic, in the sense that I’m the largest shareholder in the company, and I can just call for a shareholder vote and get anything done that I want,” Musk replied.

This is exactly what I claimed a few weeks ago in this blog, that no one should expect Denholm to “check” or “supervise” Musk.  I wasn’t surprised at all that he would confirm this.  But does this make Musk an “asshole”, or will Musk in fact be open to a true partnership with someone like Denholm.

As you may know from my writings (e.g. this blog and Born to Star), I’m a fan of Elon Musk as a heroic “vision master” though I don’t defend some aspects of his public persona, and wanting the best for him and his ventures, call for partnering with professional Execution Masters like Gwynne Shotwell at SpaceX.  The nature of such a wonderful partnership at its best is not to “check” or “supervise” the Vision Master but to compliment him or her out of mutual respect.

Many other business commentators and investors seem to agree with me.  See for example see Elon Musk Need to Bring in a Strong Number 2 at Tesla (https://www.cnbc.com/2018/08/21/elon-musk-needs-to-bring-in-a-strong-no-2-to-help-run-tesla-analysts.html)

“We think he’s going through a founder’s dilemma. He’s clearly stretched too thin,” Consumer Edge Research analyst James Albertine said on “Squawk Box.” “I think this is Elon going through personal issues, having his own struggles with the bears, very publicly.”

“The board needs to bring in a chief operating officer or co-CEO to take some of the pressures off of Musk and allow him to concentrate on being a ‘brilliant leader as a visionary,'” contended Albertine.

Oppenheimer analyst Colin Rusch, interviewed on CNBC along with Albertine, also believes Musk needs help.

“I think it’s really going to have to come from Elon,” he said. “If he can grow up enough to recognize where his limits are, I think, it would be tremendous for the stock and actually very good for the company … I think they need another presence that can actually counterbalance Elon’s capabilities in terms of visualizing a new reality for an industry with someone who can really mine the pennies and nickels and the details of an operation in a way he can’t,” Rusch concluded.

Musk’s willingness and ability to work so well with Gwynne Shotwell at SpaceX give me hope that he will eventually listen to advisors such as myself, Albertine and Rusch, as well as a near-peer Sir Richard Branson.  Branson’s advice is found at https://www.cnbc.com/2018/10/09/richard-branson-gives-elon-musk-some-advice-learn-to-delegate-and-get-some-sleep.html.  If he’ll eventually listen to advisors, or at least consider his own success at SpaceX, then we could safely conclude that Elon Musk is not an “asshole” and might be a good example for you as a Vision Master yourself.


  1. Assume you’re a brilliant Vision Master
  2. Are you entitled by your brilliance to ignore the advice or criticism of others?
  3. If so, you can safely be referred to as an “asshole”
  4. Other non-asshole Vision Masters should take my advice to get help managing their ventures
  5. See Born to Star for more on this topic.