Elon Musk — how not to have fun atop a public ivory tower
Ah, Elon Musk. What a tangled web, and all of that. Although I am not sure deceit is his goal. I honestly think he doesn’t know what he is doing anymore, deformed and warped as he must be in the wake of not only being (recently) the richest man in the world, but probably currently the most written about too.
His latest, er, bright idea was to poll his Twitter users as to whether he should continue as CEO of Twitter. The thinking behind this is a little difficult to untangle. He had previously used this form of ‘democracy’ to test whether he should let back various tweeters who had been unceremoniously ejected. The vote said bring ‘em back.
So perhaps his calculus was that the support of his views in the previous poll would certainly guarantee a tsunami of support for his continued leadership of the company.
Oops. 57% of respondents said bugger off. As of this moment, he has yet to do so. No one knows whether he will respect the poll or not. That’s kind of what mercurial means, and he is nothing if not that.
But wait. Perhaps the poll results are exactly what he wanted. He gets to signal virtue and step down, head held high, claiming surrender to the will of the masses, while secretly giggling like a mad monarch who has escaped the slice of the guillotine. Perhaps he planned it this way, which would have been genius. Because he is a large shareholder and could still continue to rule with the hidden hand of equity.
And then there is this — Musk is a bit of a joker. He has toyed and played with the media and his fans and his enemies for years. Light insults, cryptic banter, feints and parries. He has clearly wallowed in the irreverence of it all; scattershot non-conformity as a goal rather than a tactic. Look how different I am, he has blared. But I would hazard that Twitter is no fun at all. At least not since he took the reins.
Maybe this was a way to let go. But I don’t think so; his ego is far too large for him to have contemplated a vote loss.
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Twitter was always a toxic place for those who cross various ill-defined lines. And Musk has found out, perhaps to his great surprise, how much of that toxicity is now directed at him, the erstwhile golden boy of space and electric vehicles (EVs). He paid too much, the advertisers have fled, bankruptcy looms, Elton John hates him. No, not any fun at all.
There’s more. It would be one thing to deal with the humiliation of driving one of the most important media platforms into the ground, it would be quite another to ruin Tesla, already down 40% this year. That would extinguish the Musk glow forever and relegate him to a goat in the Harvard case studies of business failures. Could this possibly happen?
Consider this. I read somewhere that the majority of American Tesla buyers were wealthy Democratic-leaning voters hoping to assuage their climate-change guilt. Had I the taste and FU money for such a vehicle, I might have been a buyer too. But there is competition now, a lot. Rivian, NIO, Ford, Volvo, GM and a babel of Chinese entrants. Prospective buyers will certainly be looking elsewhere, particularly those discomforted or enraged by some of Musk’s right-leaning statements and barbs.
If this is true, and 20% or 30% of EV buyers take a political decision to buy elsewhere, Tesla will be in trouble. And Musk, no matter how maddened with self-regard, must surely know this. Or not (who really understands the mind of narcissists?)
Here is the nightmare scenario. Twitter goes bankrupt (not my fault, I am not CEO, he will claim although his investors will likely not be sympathetic). Tesla’s share price and market share drops far enough for it to be an acquisition target. China or Bezos or someone else succeeds in building a better and cheaper space rocket. Then Musk will join the pantheon of tragic figures whose lack of humility eventually upended them.
Musk did amazing things for a while. And then he decided he was the god of all things, like so many billionaires flame-outs before him. I will not shed a tear when he falls. DM
Steven Boykey Sidley is a Professor at JBS, University of Johannesburg.