Elon Musk is a master at generating headlines with his ambitious goals, surprisingly honest Twitter feed , and brilliant leadership moves. Last week he did it again, generating a flurry of coverage when Business Insider dug up a startling example of his dispassionate, data-driven (some would say cold-hearted) management style from an old biography.
According to Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, Mary Beth Brown, Musk's assistant, asked Musk him for a hefty raise after twelve years of service. "In response, Musk told Brown to take two weeks off, during which he would assume her responsibilities and see whether she was critical to his success," reports BI's Shana Lebowitz. "When Brown returned, Musk told her he didn't need her anymore."
Lebowitz spoke to a career expert who explained that the story illustrates a timeless career lesson -- always have an honest sense of your real value to your employer (and make sure it's high enough). Then communicate that value to your boss.
As far as I can see this is sensible career advice, but there's just one problem with the lesson -- it's based on a fake story. Musk quickly responded to the widely circulating story via Twitter.
Of all the bogus anecdotes, this one troubles me the most. Ashlee never actually ran this story by me or my assistant. It is total nonsense.-- Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 11, 2017
In a pair of follow-up tweets Musk further explained that "Mary Beth was an amazing assistant for over 10 yrs, but as company complexity grew, the role required several specialists vs one generalist," and "MB was given 52 weeks of salary & stock in appreciation for her great contribution & left to join a small firm, once again as a generalist,"
To Business Insider's credit they promptly reported this denial.
Yet another reason not to believe everything you read online
Could this be Musk just trying to seem a bit more loyal and humane than he was in real life? Maybe, but I suspect something else is going on. The internet's gigantic appetite for Musk news drove the story to spread before it could be properly fact checked.
According to Musk that's a pretty common occurrence. He later tweeted that there are "dozens" of untrue or half true anecdotes floating around about him.
In today's age of fake news, it probably doesn't come as a huge shock to you that false information might end up on the internet, but while posting utter nonsense has sadly come to be expected in the political realm, it's somewhat less expected in business reporting. But the internet is so hungry for content about certain business superstars that any interesting-sounding tidbit is catnip for writers (trust me on this). This little kerfuffle is healthy reminder that readers (and writers) should approach these tales with a healthy dose of skepticism.