Opinion: Tesla's CEO needs help, but will he take it?


'Revenge of the Electric Car' premiere: Elon Musk arrives in a Tesla Roadster

'Revenge of the Electric Car' premiere: Elon Musk arrives in a Tesla Roadster

Just as Tesla is beginning to straighten out manufacturing problems with its Model 3, the executive suite seems in the midst of a nuclear meltdown.

In a wide-ranging interview with The New York Times on Thursday, CEO Elon Musk admitted to being spread thin, having the most difficult and painful year in his career, and to hastily dashing off a market-moving tweet in his car on the way to the airport.

As pressure mounts on Tesla and Musk to make the company profitable in time to pay down a mountain of looming debt, the CEO’s public communications in recent months have become increasingly hasty, shrill, sometimes petty, and even juvenile.

2017 Tesla Model 3, in photo tweeted by Elon Musk on July 9, 2017

2017 Tesla Model 3, in photo tweeted by Elon Musk on July 9, 2017

Musk has had to apologize several times for hastily lashing out at critics, including cutting off an investor on the company’s June quarterly earnings call who was asking a  question about the company’s expenses, and directly insulting a rescuer in Thailand on Twitter.

The best example is his tweet last week about taking the company private—in which he said he had “funding secured” that turned out not to be so secure. In a letter to investors and employees, Musk as much as said the aim of taking the company private was to avoid public scrutiny and criticism. Nevertheless, it opened the door to an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission that the company can ill afford.

Many of Tesla’s difficulties seem largely self-inflicted by the thin skin and reactionism of its chief executive.

READ THIS: Tesla and its fans lash out at critics: commentary

Some observers have suggested that Twitter is the problem, and inside reports suggest that the company’s board has asked Musk to stay off Twitter. Looking at Musk's feed suggests he has backed off tweeting about the company somewhat.

The internet age, coupled with Musk’s informality in general, have combined to give onlookers insight into the CEO’s grandly ambitious yet vulnerable mind.

By most accounts, Musk is a difficult visionary of the kind often required to launch and build world-changing companies, especially one such as Tesla with a mission to overturn one of the dominant paradigms of a century and overthrow the hegemony of one of the largest and most entrenched industries in the world.

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An executive too beholden to current reality could not commit to wholesale changes from established practice. 

If we’ve learned nothing more from Musk’s tweets, it may be that if he wants to continue as CEO of a such an ambitious company, Musk needs to grow up.

The Times reported that the company’s board is seeking a new No. 2 executive, possibly a chief operating officer, to take some of the day-to-day load off Musk.

Tesla Model 3 all-wheel drive Performance rolls off a new assembly line in a temporary structure

Tesla Model 3 all-wheel drive Performance rolls off a new assembly line in a temporary structure

Yet it’s easy to see how an executive with enough talent to run the day-to-day operations of such a grand enterprise might not be willing to live under the thumb of such a petulant micromanager. He’s famously prone to not taking advice.

Musk himself admitted to The New York Times that he could be willing to entertain an alternative. In an interview in which he admitted the toll his world-changing company is taking on his personal life, he said, "If you have anyone who can do a better job, please let me know," he said. "They can have the reins right now."

The problem is, if Musk can’t set his melodrama aside, it may be hard to find anyone else willing to hold those heavy reins.

 
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