In a matter of months, billionaire Elon Musk appears to have effortlessly gone from idolised kooky tech guy to someone at ease with handing out online abuse, and with an army of millions ready to defend his every move.
But concerns about his behaviour have now reached new heights, with the Tesla founder launching an extraordinary attack on a cave diving expert and hero rescuer of 13 Thai boys who were recently recovered from a 19-day ordeal lost in a cave system in Thailand.
As widely reported, some days into the rescue mission, Musk offered to try and help the operation seemingly on a whim after being asked to by a follower on Twitter. The tech founder then cobbled together a diving ‘pod’ made out of parts of a SpaceX rocket, which the lost boys could have theoretically laid in and been ferried out of the cave by their rescuers.
The world was immediately dubious of Musk’s plan due to the incredibly tight corners in the cave system, where some parts are just 40cm wide, and during the operation leader Narongsak Osatanakorn dismissed the device as being “unsuitable”.
With the boys now safe and sound, other members of the rescue operation began to share their views, with British diver Vern Unsworth telling CNN Musk’s device was nothing more than a “PR stunt”.
“It just had absolutely no chance of working. He had no conception of what the cave passage was like. The submarine, I believe, was about 5ft 6in long, rigid, so it wouldn’t have gone round corners or round any obstacles,” Unsworth said.
“He can stick his submarine where it hurts.”
In response, Musk baselessly accused the diver of being a “pedo [pedofile]”[sic], saying he could make a submarine that reached all the way through the cave system “no problemo”, adding: “Sorry pedo guy, you really did ask for it”.
After users pointed out the severity of Musk’s accusation on Twitter, he doubled down, saying: “Bet ya a signed dollar it’s true”.
Musk’s tweets have since been deleted, but the damage appears to be well and truly done. For some, this may be the moment that Musk’s carefully crafted tech guy facade finally unravels after an increasingly erratic 12 months.
The entrepreneur’s Trump-like Twitter presence has long been ingrained in his personal brand, responding to fans and detractors regularly on the platform, seemingly making promises and accusations without almost any planning nor thought. This has lead to events such as Musk’s ‘initial hat offering’ or mass flamethrower sale, both events that greatly helped the founder field positive media coverage and continue to build his ‘spontaneous startup guy’ brand.
But last year the true nature of Musk’s Tesla utopia began to become apparent, with a complaint by the United Auto Workers union claiming the company fired workers because they attempted to unionise. Musk later denied the claims, saying Tesla workers could unionise “tomorrow” if they wanted.
However the bad press continued, and drawing further inspiration from his President, Musk decided to wage a war against the media, lashing out at numerous journalists — many of them female — and coincidentally mobilising his 20 million-strong army of Twitter followers, many of them young, and many of them males.
Categorised as “MuskBros” by one such targeted journalist, these followers are a large contributing factor to the public’s building disdain for the tech founder. They follow Musk’s word blindly, lashing out at any who question him, often with death threats and regularly misogynist messages.
Vern was a real bitch@elonmusk was trying to HELP
Vern didn't need to say the sub was "useless"
or that Musk was "asked to leave the Cave"
He could have at least
thanked Elon for his effort
— we wondered why not? (@TyMurphy19) July 15, 2018
The onslaught of abuse from Musk’s followers has been felt by those who Musk feels have ‘wronged’ him, such as a small American designer who questioned why Musk was using his “farting unicorn” mug design without having the rights to. Or Australian molecular biologist and nanotechnologist Upulie Divisekera, who called out Musk on Twitter for calling nanotechnology “BS”.
And these are just the major issues, not withstanding Musk making unfounded accusations about someone’s mental health (3,000 likes), whining about being called a billionaire (12,000 likes), and calling a public transit expert an “idiot” after the expert questioned Musk’s hate of public transport (42,000 likes).
So while Musk’s latest lash-out is horrifying, baseless, and dangerous, for many it’s unlikely to be shocking. And with Tesla fans and MuskBros defending him even still, it’s clear the cult of the CEO is still alive and well at Tesla HQ.
Musk a cautionary tale for leaders
For experts in the business world, Musk’s behaviour is being seen as a cautionary tale of how not to lead a company. Speaking to SmartCompany, professor of leadership at Swinburne University’s Business School Sen Sendjaya says Musk’s case is a classic one of “good intention gone awry”, warning business owners away from excessive self-confidence.
“Left unchecked, over-confidence in one’s self and over-reliance on one’s way of doing things can quickly change an otherwise effective leader into a destructive one,” Sendjaya told SmartCompany.
Musk’s success up to this point is largely due to his admirable leadership qualities, says Sendjaya, who says the entrepreneur has the classic qualities of being highly confident and focused, result-driven, and “intensely” competitive. However, these same strong qualities can also lead to a leader’s downfall, he says.
“Leader’s strengths and weaknesses are like two sides of the same coin. Leaders with strong conviction often think they are always right and do not need inputs from others. Many executives ignore that at their own peril,” he says.
“For every great product or company that these alpha male leaders build, there are countless employees who increasingly feel their feedback and complaints are completely ignored and thus become demoralised.”
Sendjaya believes there could be ramifications if Musk continues his errant attacks, with investors watching the founder’s moves closely. Speaking to The Guardian, major Tesla shareholder James Anderson, a partner at Baillie Gifford, said: “I intend to convey my – predictable I trust – feelings to the company tomorrow”.
Upon the New York Stock Exchange’s open on Monday, Tesla shares dropped around 3% from $US318 ($428) to $US307 ($413).
“Pride comes before destruction”
For business owners looking on, Sendjaya advises ensuring your hubris is in check, and reminding yourself “constantly” you are neither infallible or indispensible.
“The old adage pride comes before destruction is still at work. Research on executive hubris repeatedly shows that intentional efforts need to be done to mitigate its negative effects on leadership effectiveness,” he says.
“The leader should surround themselves with trusted, mature, and independent followers, and verbally give them permission to ask difficult questions around the leader’s vulnerable areas. Strong leaders need a constant reminder that they are neither infallible nor indispensable and that while competence might take them to the top it’s humility that keeps them there.
“People want to see that when they knock down the walls between the business profile, public profile, and personal profile of a leader, they find the same person in each of them.”
As for what’s next for Musk, the founder seems to be laying low for the moment, not tweeting since his extraordinary spray last night. However, consumers are already voting with their wallets, with some cancelling their Tesla pre-orders in light of his comments.
*This article was updated at 8AM on July 17 to include correct information about Tesla’s share price.