Understanding Elon Musk

If you’re a fanboy you may wish to skip this.

In the past I have been a huge supporter of this man, and I have not been afraid to point out his flaws too. Once you reach a certain level of success, the people around you are hesitant to criticize you. This is a danger. I have nothing to gain or lose so I will provide constructive criticism. I offer this because I continue to be a great admirer of Elon Musk.

He is an engineering genius, a brilliant entrepreneur, and a true visionary, disrupting half a dozen of the most important sectors in the global economy. He is changing the course of human history through the forces of better design thinking, better ethics, better products, better manufacturing, and better supply chain management.

But Elon is human and his most significant flaws are surprising, given his effectiveness. Most of the people who have risen to great heights in history have been superior communicators. Elon is not. He has advanced ideas, but it’s hit or miss whether we receive them and understand them.

Right now he’s hanging out with Bolsonaro, an Amazon-destroying dimwit who is about to lose power in Brazil. Elon went there to make a business deal but it came off looking like a political statement. Similarly, he’s talking about voting Republican, which is hard for many of us to accept.

The truth is, Elon is like many entrepreneurs, driven toward his goals, to the exclusion of much else. He’s a lot less political than we think. He just doesn’t want his cash flow threatened by stupid taxes or his brand besmirched by false statements by Biden, who is unhappy about Elon’s non-union shops and political donations. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren both inexplicably chose him as a target. This made me think a lot less of them, not less of Elon.

Elon continuously screws up communications. I’m not saying he is inarticulate. He can be incredibly articulate. But he does not value preparation. In fact, he despises it. He thinks carefully prepared remarks are not authentic and therefore dishonest. He throws himself on Twitter whenever the spirit moves him and says whatever he’s feeling without much consideration of the impact.

It has worked for him because as per the Trump school of say-anything-that-keeps-them-talking-about-you, he keeps himself and his brands in the public eye without buying advertising, which he also views as dishonest.

There are many contradictions here. First of all, advertising or prepared remarks or good communications are not necessarily dishonest, unless you outright lie the way oil companies and certain politicians do.

Good communications are not different than what successful entrepreneurs like Elon do when they talk to potential investors. It’s called putting your best foot forward. It’s like writing a resumé. You don’t list all your worst moments on your resumé.

Second, Elon and his team like to perpetuate the idea that Tesla does not engage in advertising. This is silly. The company is very modern in its use of social media, video, photography and networking, so okay, strictly speaking, it does not purchase traditional advertising time or space, but it accommodates and organizes exposure for its products, brands, achievements and people. And it could do a better job at this, but the obsession with ‘we don’t advertise’ leads to stopping and starting when it comes to building a professional operation. As Tesla continues to scale, it will end up communicating effectively.

Third, Tesla is apparently Apple-like in its use of NDAs and control of statements by employees. I would say this contradicts its position that “We don’t advertise because it’s not honest or transparent.”

Another problem that Elon has, is that like many of us, he takes criticism and unwarranted attacks to heart. He flies off the handle to retaliate against the numerous morons who try to embarrass him in public. He needs to ignore some of them and take them in stride, the way you do when you drive a car and there are idiots all around you.

Now he’s setting up a litigation department because he’s against the idea of settling a lawsuit for economic reasons. I agree with him. I hate that you would pay someone who lied about a sexual encounter, or to end a pointless litigation. It makes you look guilty of something when you’re not. It’s an unfortunate side effect of the litigious world we’ve built. It will be interesting to see if Elon’s commitment to fighting all meritless cases to the end will pay off. If so, he will disrupt another sphere of human activity.

I’m guessing it will not be worth his time. When you get really big, the worst elements in society look for ways to extract money from you without regard to ethics. The legal profession has never been about justice. It has always been about what can apparently be proven. It’s very pragmatic, not ethical. That’s why settlements and hush-ups happen. They become the most pragmatic choice.

Agreeing to settle it and keep it quiet is one of those things that corporations in today’s ruthless world think they must do once they reach a certain size, because there are just too many sharks circling all the time.

Elon doesn’t want to legally accept a falsehood, hush it up, advertise slickly, be less than authentic on social media and in public, all because he sees himself as ethical and committed to truth. But I have worked in communications, journalism, startups and government for more decades than I want to divulge; and I can assure you that truth is well buried below a mountain of perception. If you’re not managing the perceptions, you won’t have a hope in hell managing the truth.

The bottom line is, Elon needs to apply his famous ‘first principles’ approach to external communications. And he needs to take an extra day to think about it, each time he feels like making a big statement on Twitter.

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