Is Elon Musk an a-hole?

Can people achieve big, even massive, things without being douchebags?

I’m torn. I’ve had a man crush on Elon Musk for a long time because he is a true visionary who figured out his life path in his teens (get us off fossil fuels, create awesome nonpolluting cars, get us to Mars and make us multiplanetary to enhance survival) who just gets shit done. He’s achieved so much.

I read the Ashley Vance bio of Musk (called just “Musk”) a couple of years ago and it painted a picture of a driven and extremely intelligent, but kind of awkward and even shy engineer type putting his all into changing the world. Yes, he made a ton of money along the way but that didn’t at all seem to be what drove him.

Then I recently read (well, listened to) the new book by Tim Higgins called Power Play, all about Tesla and its people. Elon comes across as a raging asshole, consistently going off on people when under pressure, often without good reason, firing people left and right, threatening to fire people as a consistent tactic to get performance. And kind of consistently being a douchebag.

I read Walter Isaacson’s bio of Steve Jobs a few years ago, (called Steve Jobs), and again we have a portrait of a brilliant, driven, inspiring leader who was just kind of an ahole. Consistently.

Do high achieving corporate or thought leaders more generally need to be aholes? I don’t think so. Apple’s new CEO Tim Cook seems to be a good example of someone who has done amazing things and is generally thought to be a really decent guy. And Microsoft’s new CEO Sundar Pichai has a rep for being a “nice guy.”

Or is Higgins’ new book just an unfair portrait of Elon? He’s a Wall Street Journal reporter and they’ve consistently slammed Tesla over the years, even though Tesla has against all odds (and against consistently critical press) achieved so many milestones on its way to becoming by far the most valuable car company in the world (almost $800 billion earlier this year).

Higgins gave Elon a chance to respond to the book and Elon just wrote back: “Most, but not all, of what is in this book is nonsense.” He also tweeted later that the book was “both false *and* boring.” And yet it’s sourced from multiple people over hundreds of interviews. And if you care about Tesla or Musk the book is definitely not boring.

And here’s the thing: at the end of the Isaacson bio of Steve Jobs he reflects on Jobs’ consistent reputation for being “tough” or a “jerk” (to put it mildly) and he shares his view that having known Jobs for many years and written an entire biography of him, it was Isaacson’s view that Jobs would have been MORE, not less, effective if he hadn’t been such an ahole.

I can recommend highly all three of these biographies. They’re all well-written, well-researched, and love them or hate them (or something in between) both Jobs and Musk are extremely interesting and will go down in history as wildly influential.



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