Elon Musk is Not a Bad Man or Entrepreneur, He’s Merely a Bad Wizard
And the spell of wizardry, an enchanting but false mythology of leaders beguiling us, is the real culprit we together should be focused on in 2023.
When it comes to the curious case of Elon Musk, and his ongoing sh*tshow in San Francisco, we’re referencing it all with the wrong movie. The film in question is Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, which started streaming on Netflix on December 23rd and quickly lit up the highly challenged Twitter with its evil protagonist’s supposed resemblance to the “Chief Twit” himself.
The conservative pundit Ben Shapiro has led the viral assault on director Rian Johnson for his temerity in parodying the icon of innovation: “His take on the universe is that Elon Musk is a bad and stupid man, and that anyone who likes him — in media, politics, or tech — is being paid off by him,” he wrote on (where else?) Twitter.
Never mind that Johnson has responded that the movie’s parallels with real life are mere coincidence, even a “horrible accident,” noting that it was filmed almost two years ago, long before Musk was dominating headlines. Sure, Johnson was taking a swipe at the tech space. But as someone who’s lived in that domain for the past three decades, trust me, we can take it. It’s a fun whodunnit with Daniel Craig sporting a passable southern accent, and cameos from Hugh Grant and Yo-Yo Ma. I personally really enjoyed it and I’m as pro-capitalist as they come (conscious capitalism, that is).
But the more serious point I want to make on the tedious debate (generating 7.5 million results when I last Googled) is that it reflects a larger bend of reality: the framing of Musk is wrong in our more general perception. Naturally, Hollywood loves nothing more than the tale of the swashbuckling tycoon. Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) stands atop the genre, but it’s a long list. The Greek Tycoon with Anthony Quinn (1978), Wall Street with Michael Douglas (1987), The Aviator with Leonardo DiCaprio (2004), and The Wolf of Wall Street with DiCaprio again (2013) are just a few that come to mind.
The narrative of the Colossus striding the globe appeals to many a real or would-be entrepreneur. Too many in my line of work fall prey to a superficial understanding of entrepreneurship as they glorify Howard Roark, the lone wolf protagonist in the book they treat as a sacred text: Ayn Rand’s 1943 The Fountainhead.
I think I’ve got some standing here as an entrepreneur, with six companies founded, one almost $300 million acquisition by IBM at Coremetrics, one top-five IPO as named by the WSJ in 2012 at Bazaarvoice, a Goldman Sachs-led Series C $50 million funding round in 2022 for my current company, data.world, and in my garage a Tesla Model S Plaid that I love. I’ve also written a book on entrepreneurship that I released last Mother’s Day. With some qualifications, I can declare this portrait of the business leader nonsense. It makes for interesting movies and caricatures, but as Walter Isaacson said so eloquently in his final speech as the CEO of the Aspen Institute, delivered at the Aspen Action Forum, “What I’ve learned most in studying these amazing leaders that I’ve written biographies on is that they were also amazing collaborators — that is indeed the basis of human progress: collaboration.”
If you want a film that does capture the true spirit of entrepreneurship, nothing does so quite like the second to the last scene in The Wizard of Oz (1939). If you’ll recall, the Cowardly Lion, The Scarecrow, and the Tin Man all team up with Dorothy to find the Wizard and achieve, respectively, courage, brains, and a heart — plus a ride home for Toto and the girl from Kansas. Only the great man can deliver. The moral of the story is that when they finally get to the Wizard, he informs them that — in fact — they have had these virtues all along.
Tesla, Musk’s company-in-need-of-attention now headquartered in its absolutely massive building in my hometown of Austin, was never about cars. It was about a greener future, about robotics, about AI, and other liberating technologies. Similarly, Musk has never been the lone genius creating these things. He’s an avatar — in the original sense in the Hindu faith where the concept originates — manifesting a larger spirit that is in us all. Tens of thousands have created this vision and contributed to this spirit at Tesla, SpaceX, and his other companies as engineers, designers, computer scientists, salespeople, and other employees. Millions more have contributed as customers and contractors. Entrepreneurs are often treated as heroes but I know all too well how many exceptional people have contributed to our collective success.
Entrepreneurial disruption, innovation, and creativity needs leaders. But experience has shown me that it’s also the ultimate team sport. 2022 was a rough year in tech, with trust eroded by the crypto meltdown, including the FTX collapse and arrest of Sam Bankman-Fried and his co-conspirators, and the sentencing of Elizabeth Holmes and Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani as leaders of the Theranos scandal. These are failures, frankly, wrought by a culture that stands in contrast to the team sports ethos of Austin’s tech ecosystem. When I think of the many incredibly ambitious startups in Austin now, like ICON, Everlywell, colossal, and ZenBusiness, I think of companies free of the hero worship I describe.
In this sense, perhaps Musk’s collapse into narcissistic nuttery should liberate those working for the broader vision of what Tesla represents — a future that is much better than the past. Musk may have channeled a vision, represented it even as its avatar. But he didn’t — and he doesn’t — own it.
We do. We are the customers. We are the keepers of the faith in the brand. That’s always the way it is in business, and Southwest Airlines would be smart to pay attention to that fact too by investing in its core systems and listening to its employees on the front lines. data.world is defined by our technology and products, yes; our team, yes; our culture, yes; but most of all we are defined by the company we keep: our customers and partners.
Musk’s once-vaunted image, dependent on the endless superlatives “first”, “best”, and “most”, is now more challenged than ever. But society’s deeply held view of the hero CEO as the bold and valiant loner should be shattered as well.
I don’t think Elon Musk is a bad entrepreneur, a failure in the broad sense. I believe he actually may emerge from the fiasco he has created stronger, more creative, and even more successful — and maybe even more humble. He just has to liberate himself, as we all do, from an image that was an unreal myth to begin with. Personally, I once described Musk as the greatest innovation entrepreneur of our time on Lucky7. It does not diminish his genius to add now that his achievement was to lead what may be the greatest collaboration of our time. His failing has been to not become a leader who fosters company cultures which thrive and endure — Isaacson’s essential. The way people have been treated at Twitter has been appalling. Downsize, okay — I get it: do what you have to do as leader to make your business successful for the collective and your customers. But treat people you are letting go with respect and dignity — karma is very real in my experience. The case of Yoel Roth’s treatment, as one of the more extreme examples, is a stunning one to say the least.
In that final scene in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy (Judy Garland) excoriates the Wizard (Frank Morgan) for his broken promises with invective that invites comparison with the anger and insults being hurled at Musk today: “You’re a very bad man,” Dorothy scolds.
“No my dear, I’m a very good man,” the Wizard responds. “I’m just a very bad wizard.”
Musk is exactly that. He’s many things, many of them good, some disturbing. He’s just not the wizard that the spell has made him out to be.
Let’s all get over it in 2023, and break the spell as we work to make the future, together. That’s what enduring leadership is all about.