Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Elon Musk – the Bowie of Business

Having just finished Morley’s brilliant biography of Bowie, it struck me that Musk is the Bowie of business. Constantly reinventing himself; Paypal hero, Tesla road warrior, Solar City sungod, Starman with Space X and now the sci-fi Hyperloop hipster- and he’s still only in his forties. Strange fact this but the first Tesla car was codenamed DarkStar.
But let’s not stretch Bowies leg warmers too far. Ashlee Vance’s biography of Elon Musk is magnificent for mostly other reasons. It’s about Musk the man, his psychology. There’s a manic intensity to Musk, but it’s directed, purposeful and, as Vance says, it’s not about making money. Time and time again he puts everything he’s made into the next, even weirder and riskier project. Neither is he a classic business guy or entrepreneur. For him questions come first and everything he does is about finding answers. He despises the waste of intellect that gets sucked into the law and finance, as he’s a child of the Enlightenment and sees as his destiny the need to accelerate progress. He doesn’t want to oil the wheels, he wants to drive, foot to the metal, the fastest electric car ever made then ride a rocket all the way to Mars. As he says, he wants to die there – just not on impact. Always on the edge of chaos, like a kite that does its best work when it stalls and falls but then it soars.
Time and time again experience tells me, and I read, about actual leaders who bear no resemblance to the utopian model presented by the bandwagon ‘Leadership’ industry. The one exception is Stanford’s Pfeffer, who also sees the leadership industry as peddling unreal, utopian platitudes. Musk has a string of business successes behind him, including PayPal, and is the major shareholder in three massive, public companies, all of which are innovative, successful and global. He has taken on the aerospace, car and energy industries at breathtaking speed, with mind-blowing innovation. Yet he is known to be mercurial, cantankerous, eccentric, mean, capricious, demanding, blunt, delivers vicious barbs, swears like a trooper, takes things personally, lacks loyalty and has what Vance calls a ‘cruel stoicism’ –all of these terms taken from the book. He demands long hours and devotion to the cause and is cavalier in firing people. “Working at Tesla was like being Kurtz in Apocalypse Now”. So, for those acolytes of ‘Leadership’ and all the bullshit that goes with that domain, he breaks every damn rule – then again so do most of them – in fact that’s exactly why they succeed. They’re up against woozies who believe all that shit about leading from behind.
So why are people loyal to him and why does he attract the best talent in the field? Well, he has vision. He also has a deep knowledge of technology, is obsessive about detail, takes rapid decisions, doesn’t like burdensome reports and bureaucracy, likes shortcuts and is a fanatic when it comes to keeping costs down. Two small asides – he likes people to turn up at the same time in the morning and hates acronyms. I like this. His employees are not playing pool or darts mid-morning and don’t lie around being mindful on brightly coloured bean bags. It’s relentless brainwork to solve problems against insane deadlines.

You may disagree but he does think that it is only technology that will deliver us from climate change, the dependence on oil and allow us to inhabit planets other than our own and his businesses form a nexus of energy production, storage and utilisation that, he thinks, will save our species. He may be right.

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