Elon Musk is no stranger to bold promises or controversy. They frequently travel together in his case. It shouldn't come as much of a surprise then that Musk is facing criticism for failing to live up to one of those bold promises. Except in this case, when you promise to deliver life-saving ventilators and you don't, it's more than simply controversial.
Over the past few weeks, Musk's public statements on ventilators have included statements that Tesla would manufacture them if needed, that he had purchased 1,000 "FDA approved ventilators," and that he had sent those to hospitals.
The problem is no hospitals have actually received ventilators from Musk or Tesla. Instead, some of what was donated and sent to hospitals were devices used to treat sleep apnea. Known as BiPAP machines, those devices don't force air directly into the lungs using a breathing tube--which is required for patients suffering from severe forms of Covid-19.
"Newsom's office now says @elonmusk was supposed to deliver the ventilators directly to hospitals. So far, however, the governor's office says no California hospital has received them. It's also not clear whether Musk actually has any ventilators to give." https://t.co/HWAlHLPbOw-- Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) April 14, 2020
In addition, the California Governor's office has said none of the hospitals in that state have received any ventilators that were promised.
Last week I wrote about how Tesla was building a ventilator out of Model 3 car parts. Those devices are impressive and even ingenious, but so far, it appears they haven't been produced or delivered to health care providers. I reached out to Tesla for comment, but the company didn't immediately respond to my inquiry.
Setting aside the fact that this particular promise relates to life-saving equipment in the middle of a pandemic, when you make a promise, you have to keep it. Making bold promises is easy, and it's something Musk is quite good at. Delivering, on the other hand, is often hard work and messy.
This isn't to pick on Musk. I've given him credit on several occasions for his willingness to step up and help during this crisis. I bring all of this up because it makes an important point that every leader should heed.
What you say matters, for sure. What you do, however, is everything. When you make a promise, you put your reputation (and that of your company) on the line, and you create an expectation that your audience can depend on you. If you fail to keep your promise, it isn't just your credibility that takes a hit.
We're all counting on each other right now. There isn't anyone who isn't affected in some way. We're all just trying to figure out how to get through this. In the midst of that, some have the ability to help and have committed to doing that.
Companies like Tesla and Apple and Ford and GM have stepped up to manufacture protective gear, masks, and ventilators. Some of those companies--among others--have made huge contributions of equipment they had throughout their supply chain. Others are finding creative ways to serve their communities in smaller, but no less important, ways.
If that's you, we all appreciate it. At the same time, we're counting on you. It's tempting to make bold promises, the sort that attract attention and gain kudos. But they also create expectations. Be transparent and honest with your team, your customers, and your community. And if you make a promise to any of them, keep it. They deserve nothing less.