Elon Musk's TRUE Sustainability issue


Elon Musk has made a career of pushing things to the limit. His basic brand has always been about exploring outdated assumptions about technology, systems, and what’s possible. Who else has proposed and/or built a svelte product line of electric vehicles, the world’s largest battery factory, and a commercially available personal flame-thrower? It’s been fascinating to watch this develop, and to wonder how long it can last.

Over the past two weeks, we may have found out. The list of “things Elon Musk has pushed to (or beyond) the limit" has grown to be truly larger than life. He’s being investigated by the SEC, he’s in trouble with his Board, Tesla’s stock is 20% off its 52 week high, and over $100/share below the price at which he tweeted he had a deal to take the company private.

What’s going on? A clue may lie in a defense we’re hearing more of all the time - Ambien. I’m not saying Ambien explains the behavior - although Ambien-tweeting is apparently a thing, and the sleep-aid has been implicated in all sorts of otherwise inexplicable behavior.

I AM saying that Mr. Musk is gradually becoming more open about the consequences of his driven life. In an interview published last week in the New York Times, he summarized the last year as “excruciating”. He is working 120 hours a week, not seeing friends and family, and facing the choice, in his own words of either “no sleep or Ambien.”

Another way to say this is that his chosen leadership style is unsustainable.

That’s an interesting choice of words, given Tesla’s focus on pivoting away from internal combustion engines to sustainable energy sources, but it fits. Research from The Leadership Circle, a boutique firm that specializes in studying and assessing leadership traits lists “Sustainable Productivity” right beside “Strategic Focus” and “Purposeful and Visionary” when it comes to critical leadership skills. The message is clear…when it comes to leadership, if the leader is running on empty, making questionable decisions, and drawing attention to their exhausted behavior instead of the work at hand, they’ve overlooked a key part of the job.  

Is this a new thing? Hardly. Two years ago, I met George Blankenship, the former head of sales for Tesla. He’s an amazing guy with experience working for demanding personalities like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. He spoke openly about his Tesla experience, the pressures, and the ultimate success of meeting the production goals that were in place at that time. That’s great, right? The problem is that this talented executive still choked up when he spoke about the experience, and had left the company shortly after surviving his trial by fire. It simply wasn’t sustainable.

Over the past couple of years, Elon Musk has been compared to some pretty amazing people…his car company is named after Nikola Tesla, a protégé of Thomas Edison considered by most to be a bonafide genius. Musk has also been likened to Howard Hughes, who at one time was a young billionaire, aviation pioneer, and inspired inventor who owned TransWorld Airlines (TWA) and a large part of Las Vegas. 

The problem is that both of those outrageously talented people ended up as cautionary tales on unsustainable trajectories, their personal lives in ruins.

So, it’s important to remember that “the job” isn’t just producing results, breaking down barriers, and reaching new heights. It’s also about designing the job, our workplaces, and the things we produce to make us better people...to recognize, celebrate, and cultivate our shared humanity. The machines haven’t taken over yet.

Let’s be human until they do. 


Let's be human