For nearly all of 2018, the mainstream business press has been characterizing Elon Musk as "erratic" every time he does something that falls outside the realm of "normal" CEO behavior. Most of that behavior, however, is brilliant and disruptive; only a small percentage of it has been screwy, and that was limited to a short period of time.

In other words, the mainstream business press simply doesn't "get" Musk because they insist upon seeing every high-tech CEO through Jobs-colored glasses. But Musk isn't at all like Jobs and even less like the army of Jobs clone wannabes. He's simply in a class by himself--not necessarily better, but undeniably different.

For example, the mainstream business press lambasted Musk when, during an earnings call, he pointed out that a couple of the financial analysts were asking "bonehead questions." Most high-tech CEOs would have handled the situation with more finesse. Musk just called the guys out--and it turned out that Musk was right.

The mainstream press similarly freaked out when Musk decided to get rid of all the contractors that couldn't get a Tesla employee to vouch for them. Business reporters and pundits couldn't get around their preconceptions that downsizing and restructuring require months of "strategic planning." But once again, Musk was right in cutting the Gordian knot.

Then Musk actually started acting strangely. Specifically, he tweeted a serious unfounded accusation about a critic and then jumped the gun (and probably killed the deal) on a bid to privatize Tesla. It was clear to me at the time that Musk was suffering from overwork, which can cause even the best of us to make dumb mistakes.

The mainstream press really thought Musk was nuts, though, when he went on TV and smoked a blunt, drank some whiskey, and wept in frustration. I had a completely different interpretation--that Musk was publicly signaling that he was done working himself to exhaustion and was now ready to relax and deal with his emotions about it all.

In other words, what the mainstream press thought was more crazy behavior was actually Musk returning to mental health. One might argue that self-medication isn't usually a good idea and that profound emotional catharsis should be conducted privately, but that's not the point. The behaviors--though unusual for a CEO--were fundamentally healthy.

Yesterday, Musk eliminated his own job titles at Tesla. True to form, the mainstream business press thinks this is more Musk craziness, but once again they've got it wrong. There are few things sillier in the business world than the exaggerated respect everyone pays to job titles. Musk is publicly disrupting that, which is a stroke of management genius.

As every salesperson knows, it's not the job title that matters when it comes to decision-making; it's the reputation of the individual inside the organization. I've seen situations--many of them--where the lead programmer in a startup has more clout than the founders.

The simple truth is that Musk is the heart and soul of Tesla, as well as his other companies, regardless of what title he holds. His personality and vision are so pervasive that traditional job titles are meaningless impediments--status quo silliness that ultimately isn't relevant to creating insanely innovative products and processes.

In short, it's ridiculous to judge Musk's behavior by how most CEOs behave. He's not like them; he'll never be like them. As long as Musk paces himself and doesn't burn himself out again (and consequently make dumb mistakes), he is likely to win every battle. It's just how it is, so deal with it.

Published on: Oct 30, 2018
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