Elon Musk. The name was synonymous with innovation and ingenuity. It still very rightfully is. But after months of continuous turmoil and controversy, critics and supporters alike have attached real concern to the serial entrepreneur, too. In short review, for example, they've watched as Musk called a rescue diver a pedophile, smoked marijuana during a podcast, put Tesla under criminal investigation after randomly tweeting consideration for taking the company private and ultimately stepped down as Tesla chair for three years after a battle with the SEC. And not surprisingly, some of the biggest names in business--Mark Cuban and Richard Branson, for example--have gotten involved, urging Musk to slow down, delegate and watch his mouth.
But to assume that Musk doesn't have a concept of his own predicament is a bad move. He does. In an interview with The New York Times, the lauded business leader reportedly choked up in admission of what's been happening, describing his isolation and grueling schedule. "This past year has been the most difficult and painful year of my career," he told interviewers. "It was excruciating."
Others have described Musk's actions as shocking and irresponsible. But his behaviors shouldn't be a surprise at all. For years, we've lived under an umbrella of powerful business mantras about great leadership:
- Business success means you have to put in a lot of hours. If you don't, if you dare even to take a real lunch (away from your desk!), someone else will steal your spotlight and opportunities.
- If you have great ideas, you should be willing to sacrifice to make them reality.
- The quickest way to financial security is to create multiple streams of income.
- Winners don't back away.
- Attention to detail makes a difference.
So look at Musk. He regularly works more than 100 hours a week. He gives up vacations and time with friends and family and stays at the office even on his birthday. He not only gets multiple companies up and running, but makes those companies industry leaders and trend setters. And for well over a decade, he's faced one challenge after the other without really having anyone to delegate to, micromanaging his way through every day.
Elon Musk is doing everything we told him he should.
Does Musk have to take some personal responsibility for what he says and does? To a degree, absolutely. He has the power to make personal choices. But there comes a point when exhaustion means real impairment in judgment and decision making.
And no (wo)man stands in isolation, either. Musk might be more prone to listen to these mantras because of his personality and preferences, but it's our culture that whispers those ideologies into his ear. It's our culture that pits psychology and science against each other, that tells us not to rest even as study after study discovers quantifiable limits to what the human body and mind can take. And rather than address these ingrained biases and ideas that devastate the genius around and in us, rather than call out the broken systems we're feeding, we lean on the ideas of personal power, courage and autonomy and tell each other it's all on us individually to escape Musk's fate.
If Musk is like Mary Shelly's famous monster, then we're all Victor Frankenstein. And guess what. The whole point of that book, contrary to the image Hollywood might have portrayed, wasn't to paint the monster as horrible. The monster suffered. Excruciatingly, to borrow Musk's word. The point was to teach compassion and the ethics of what we should and should not create.
So I'll just ask.
What are we creating? What are we shaping people to be, forcing them into, misunderstanding? How many other Musks are there out there suffering outside of the headlines? And why does it still catch us off guard when one of them derails?
There's nothing wrong with wanting to do what's never been done, with wanting to stand out and make a name for yourself. But Musk epitomizes the idea that we must be exceedingly cautious that leaders can discern where to draw the line no matter what the expectations are, and that the expectations we set actually are feasible for mental and physical health. Research indicates more and more CEOs see mental health as important. But there is much, much more dismantling to do before we can say the lab is closed.