Some of CEO and entrepreneur Elon Musk‘s most polarizing attributes may have also enabled his success so far, says biographer Walter Isaacson.
Musk has become well-known for seemingly impulsive decisions and controversial statements on his social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter. That reckless streak can’t be separated out from Musk’s track record of innovation at companies like Tesla and SpaceX, Isaacson told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Tuesday.
“He has these enraging qualities, these drives and these demons, but if you pull those out, you don’t have the impulsive character that sets things off,” said Isaacson, who shadowed Musk for two years while researching his book, which published on Tuesday.
Specifically, Musk’s willingness to take chances and speak his mind helped make him the world’s richest person and one of its most powerful entrepreneurs, the biographer said: “If you don’t have the whole cloth of Elon Musk, you’re not going to get the innovation.”
None of that excuses Musk’s “bad behavior,” like taking his “foul mood” out on his employees or challenging Mark Zuckerberg to a physical fight, Isaacson noted. And multiple other successful but hard-charging tech icons have recently expressed remorse about how they have treated their employees.
Mark Cuban, for example, regrets making his team suffer through his laser-focus on results and productivity earlier in his career. “I wish somebody would have told me to be nicer,” Cuban told the “Bio Eats World” podcast in June. “Because I was always go, go, go. … Ready, fire, aim. Let’s go. Let’s go faster, faster.”
Bill Gates’ fixation on results made him an overbearing boss at Microsoft, he told students at Northern Arizona University’s commencement ceremony in May.
“I didn’t believe in vacations. I didn’t believe in weekends. I didn’t believe the people I worked with should either,” Gates said, adding that he didn’t realize he needed to change until he became a dad.
Microsoft’s current CEO, Satya Nadella, takes almost the complete opposite approach: He puts the company’s people first, he told Harvard Business Review in 2021. Empathy is “at the heart of design thinking,” said Nadella, who assumed the role in 2014. “[It’s] the source of all innovation.”
He’s been undeniably effective. In Nadella’s first four and a half years at the helm, Microsoft tripled its stock price. Currently, the company’s market cap is $2.5 trillion, as of Wednesday afternoon.
Musk lacks “the empathy gene,” Isaacson said, echoing similar comments from Musk’s own brother Kimbal in 2021. He’s unlikely to mellow out — or care more about others’ opinions — any time soon, Isaacson added: He doesn’t see the benefit.
“Musk would say you are actually being selfish if you’re sitting there hoping the people in front of you like you,” said Isaacson. “As opposed to cutting off that sense of emotional connection and saying, ‘What’s best for the larger mission?'”
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