Few modern business figures capture the public imagination quite like Elon Musk. In the years since Steve Jobs’ passing, Musk has emerged as the next great icon of Silicon Valley, and in many ways, he’s already overshadowing Jobs. Like the barons of industry in the 19th century, Musk is largely a self-made man, a strong-willed and charismatic entrepreneur hell-bent on shaping the world in his unique image.
His semi-Utopian vision to rid the world of fossil fuels and send humankind farther into space than ever before is at worst overly ambitious, and at best extremely compelling. His policy of open-sourcing all of his patents is designed to stimulate the competition, and allows others to build on his ideas. From electric cars and household batteries, to his Hyperloop proposal, and partnership with NASA through his SpaceX venture, Musk’s vision of the future still feels far off from here, but through his own sheer will, he can convince even the most skeptical listeners of its attainability.
But there is another side to Musk, however, and one that he’d wish you’d rather not see. In Ashlee Vance’s new biography Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, he paints one of the most well-rounded portraits of Musk to date – and it’s not always flattering. Interviewing over 200 people (including Musk himself), the entrepreneur comes across as a single-minded true believer with a work ethic that can sometimes border on zealotry. He expects the same from his employees, and anything less is tantamount to betrayal.
And when Musk feels betrayed, he gets himself into trouble.
The Washington Post compiled 22 of the most memorable quotes from the book, and the article quickly went viral, causing enough of a stir for Musk to respond via Twitter. Taken as a whole, the quotes make Musk’s single-mindedness seem alternately admirable and shocking. Among the quotes is the recollection of an email Musk sent a Tesla employee who skipped a work function to attend the birth of his child. After explaining the situation, Musk allegedly replied: “That is no excuse. I am extremely disappointed. You need to figure out where your priorities are. We’re changing the world and changing history, and you either commit or you don’t.”
At a time when parental leave has become the subject of a major debate in the U.S., Musk’s comments haven’t exactly played well, especially for the leader of several startups in Silicon Valley, a region with a reputation for progressive employee benefits.
The other quote that drew Musk’s attention was an alleged statement he made to an investor, where he’s quoted as saying, “My mentality is that of a samurai. I would rather commit seppuku than fail.” While this quote seems fairly innocuous (if a little histrionic), it’s certainly in line with Musk’s single-minded focus on his work. Still, it was enough for Musk to take to Twitter to clear things up:
It is total BS & hurtful to claim that I told a guy to miss his child's birth just to attend a company meeting. I would never do that.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 12, 2015
Of 22 Quotes from http://t.co/VA2KQ03NNR, 2 need correcting: 1. I strongly support pregnancy leave 2. I've never called myself a samurai
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 12, 2015
Whether or not he berated his employee (or if he is indeed a samurai), the image of Musk as a taskmaster is nothing new. When asked if he was a good boss at this year’s Automotive News World Congress, Musk replied: “I try to be a good boss … most of the time. Not all the time.”
Part of what makes Musk’s vision of the future so compelling is that it seems to be truly altruistic – something that’s almost unheard of in business. A future free of pollutants from fossil fuels, of cheap, safe, supersonic travel, and of next-level space exploration sounds too good to pass up. But Elon Musk is just one man, and he can’t do it all alone. He’ll need a lot of help from other brilliant minds to change history; now it’s up to him to commit.