What’s Eating Brother Elon?

Let’s start with what needs to be said before all else: I am an enormous fan of Elon Musk. I think he is quite likely the most important and visionary entrepreneur today leading the way in technology, business, and innovation. He walks in the American continuum of Edison, Disney, Gates, and Jobs.  I wrote as much in a post dating back to 2014.

So when a guy as brilliant as Musk goes sideways, I start to ask myself some questions. Like, what’s up with all the weirdness?

Clearly I have no ability to understand what’s going on in this amazing individual’s life, other than to observe the monumental toll that stress can take on even the mightiest of titans. To guess at what might be at the root of Musk’s recent unpleasant run in the headlines would seem a fool’s errand.

While I am unable to fashion an informed evaluation of why Musk appears in many ways to be undermining his own success of late, I am thinking about the learning that might be had from observing his stress. I am reasonably certain he will have no interest in my reflections of what his behavior could be telling us, but perhaps this will provide a mirror for others on what some of this means and how it possibly could be addressed.

Here are five thoughts on that.

Focus Is No Small Trick

Can one person really be an effective CEO at more than one company? It’s hard enough to be a decent CEO period. Now add longevity to the CEO run and enormous competitive forces, and you start to wonder if running both Tesla (after integrating SolarCity) and SpaceX is remotely possible. Let’s also not forget that Musk is additionally CEO of Neuralink and The Boring Company. If you have ever been CEO of a high-growth company or even know one, you are aware that the job requires super-human energy, and even then the clock is always ticking against the corner office. Musk is beyond super-human, not only as a leader but as a founder who tackles some of the most difficult problems of our day. Will he succeed at all of his goals? I am sure a lot of investors and customers are counting on that, but wouldn’t the odds be more in his favor if he narrowed the scope of his personal agenda and delegated authority with a much broader brush?

A Competitive Advantage Is Not Forever

Tesla has created leading-edge, clean-exhaust automobiles. These electric vehicles are as beautiful and luxurious as anyone could have imagined. Most Tesla owners are evangelists for the company and fiercely loyal to the brand. There is no question that Tesla has been an inspired market leader, but all it takes is one visit to the showrooms of other luxury car companies and you start to see that high-end electric cars are on a fast path to becoming commodities under many brands. BMW and Jaguar already are introducing competitive product lines. Others are on the way. Staying ahead of the pack is its own form of madness and a lot less fun than introducing first-of-a-kind category killers. Can playing king of the hill without a summit in sight have a troubling impact on the psyche? How can it not?

Production Efficiency Is as Difficult as Innovation

Why hasn’t a new auto manufacturer in the U.S. survived at scale beyond the Big Three? The bulk of car buyers want cheap—most consumers don’t have an option to spend more, so the entrenched behemoths take small margins to achieve broad sales and then make money in other ways like service and financing. When you are playing with other people’s money, the demands of Wall Street can be insanely demanding. It’s hard to make big bucks selling very few cars. While Model S and Model X are both category-defining luxury cars, they remain low-volume production units with difficult margin economics given their scale. Model 3, the low-cost mass-market entry, is supposed to change the scale of Tesla, but realizing the dream of high-volume, low-cost, low-margin automobile economics seems precisely what is eating away at our hero. Is the problem perhaps not solvable with the reality of capital constraints all businesses face? Is there another business model beyond manufacturing that Tesla might want to explore with respect to the investment burden they carry?

Health Matters

A lot of people at the upper echelons of business take pride in working themselves to death, or at least appearing to do so. I will admit I am personally not beyond this criticism, and have winced more than once when listening to colleagues celebrate the notion of work-life balance even in the most competitive environments. Many leaders demonstrate manic obsession in their devotion to their enterprises, and it is hard to argue a company can be at the top of its game with a standard forty-hour work week. That said, no matter how much we wish to argue the contrary, we are human, our bodies have limits, and when we cross our own lines of practicality, we can become counterproductive. Sleep matters. Nutrition matters. Some relief from stress is necessary to be consistent in exercising good judgment and productive reasoning. When our vitality breaks down, it is only a matter of time before we collapse or the responsibilities we own become compromised.

Authenticity Does Not Require Unrestrained Drama

The modern workforce is not put off when a boss exhibits some vulnerability. Relationships defined by org charts actually can be strengthened when a manager exhibits humility toward his or her own limitations. Leaders who acknowledge that emotions and potential exhaustion set them on a level playing field with peers and subordinates can foster a dynamic environment of trust and support. That doesn’t mean employees and other stakeholders want executives to ramble, wander, or become media fodder. Remember that old saying, “When you’re in a hole, stop digging.” Random proclamations to shareholders and needlessly quirky public appearances can leave deep craters on the social graph. All organizations want some form of predictability in the leaders they choose to follow. When they lose confidence in top management because of repeated, silly, and unnecessary antics that can demoralize their aspirations, they can make another choice. They vote with their feet.

I am rooting for Elon Musk to win, for SpaceX even more than Tesla, because he has proven that not only government bureaucracies can build dependable rockets. That is forcing innovation around reusability in space exploration and keeping admirable government spending on otherworldly travel in check. While I probably can’t put a dent in Musk’s corrective arc (which I want to believe is on the horizon), perhaps I can open the eyes of a few mere mortals to the underlying tension of his story. Perhaps your story of stress and self-expectation has similar subplots of immovable market forces. What could you be doing to course-correct that might give Musk reason to pay attention?

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My Beatles Top 10

Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, George Harrison

Is it just me or we in the midst of a Beatles Renaissance? Each month of this decade offers a 50th anniversary of something surrounding The Beatles. I’ve already attended the 50th anniversary of The Beatles concert at Dodger Stadium. I’ve enjoyed a screening of Ron Howard’s documentary Eight Days a Week featuring the band’s live tours of the U.S. to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their final stadium appearance. I’ve bought the live performance audio CD with reengineered recordings from the new film. I’ve subscribed to the new Beatles Channel on SiriusXM. I’ve marveled at multiple “Deconstructing The Beatles” lectures by my friend Scott Freiman, whose live presentations are now memorialized on DVD.

Okay, maybe it’s just me. Then again, with my new novel coming about how the soundtrack of our lives is inescapable in charting our life paths, The Beatles have never been more in the forefront of my mind.

For many years I have wanted to suggest my own Beatles Top 10 song list, but I have resisted for multiple reasons. First, because it does seem to change from year to year, depending on what’s consuming my attention or memory. Second, because I have been strictly advised by most Beatles luminaries that this is a fool’s errand—to rate The Beatles catalogue is akin to publicly stating the order in which you love your family and friends (a 2017 noble but flawed attempt to force rank all 213 songs is strong evidence of this). Third, because a single omission or overstated opinion might start an argument far more volatile than any around religion or politics, again putting the goodwill of colleagues at high risk. And fourth, because for all these reasons and more, I would undoubtedly be on course to a retraction, apology, restatement, or mass deleting of this post from the digital world, which is of course impossible.

Lists have a sad tendency to become permanent, even if deemed ephemeral.

Well, too bad, I’m doing it, if for no other reason than to defy my own fears, which I am certain John, Paul, George, and Ringo would applaud. I’ve restricted the list to songs written and recorded by The Beatles in their organic whole, without covers or selections from their various solo careers. The list is not in a precise order 1 to 10, because that numeration does ebb and flow with my mood, and so they remain unnumbered out of sheer fear of regret. Directionally this is my set list, and I hope I can stick to it.

Ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles!

In My Life (1965)

Hey, it’s my wedding song. If I don’t put it in first position I’m really in trouble. But it’s my wedding song for a reason, and the lyrics sit in a silver frame on my wife’s dresser because I bought the frame and put them there for both of us to read every day. Have a look at the words sometime. You may want to change your wedding song. “In my life, I love you more.”

While My Guitar Gently Weeps (1968)

This George Harrison tune haunts me unendingly, even more so since we lost George in 2001. I remember walking into a rock memorabilia store in Las Vegas years ago and seeing The Concert for George playing from a DVD on a widescreen and just standing there mesmerized with the sound pouring out in tribute. The guitar licks emerge like spoken lyrics and weave in and out of the simple verses with delicacy and determination. If you wanted to solo within the voice of an originator, this song gives you the chance of a lifetime.

Get Back (1969)

Whenever the word “Beatles” crosses my eardrums, I think of this song. It’s the quintessential tune that harnesses the ethos of the band, emerging from the tension of the end of their career but harkening back to the earliest days at the Cavern Club. If you ever get a chance to see the amazing Cirque du Soleil show Love at The Mirage in Vegas, or simply immerse yourself in the soundtrack mixed by George Martin, note the placement of this song in the early transition of the show from one era to another. The back beat is railroad steady yet quiet, it roars and rumbles without being bombastic. It is sonic, uncompromised rock ‘n’ roll, with Billy Preston on the backing keyboards to bring it home.

Nowhere Man (1965)

Ever have a song you can’t get out of your head because you’re not supposed to get it out of your head? This song, which somehow found its way into the core of the Yellow Submarine screenplay and inspired the character Jeremy Hillary Boob Ph.D., sings to me at every level of interpretation and inspiration. It begins a capella, offers some of the band’s finest happy harmonies, and tells a story that reaches into our hearts. “Isn’t he a bit like you and me?”

I Saw Her Standing There (1963)

Should you have the poor fortune of walking into a karaoke bar when I’m the leadoff fodder, I will be kicking off with this standard. It’s simple, it’s lively, it’s old school, and it works. It’s my wife’s second-favorite Beatles song no matter how badly I botch it. There is also a bit of sentimentality in it for me, as I remember when Lennon came out of hiding in 1974 after a tough few years, he was brought onstage for this one by Elton John—even more ironic because it’s a McCartney vocal. It’s on the B-side of “Philadelphia Freedom.” If you don’t know what a B-side is, my apologies.

Here Comes the Sun (1969)

How can a song be purely joyous and enormously sad at the same time? George Harrison had a way not only with melody and instrumentation, but with short words as fuses of emotion. Similar to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (and for that matter, “Something,” which just barely misses my list), it seems as though this epic was meant to be covered and reinterpreted. Did you see George play it with Paul Simon on Saturday Night Live in 1976? Yes, you need to do that.

Come Together (1969)

This is one of those Beatles tunes that sort of doesn’t fit in with the rest of their discography. It’s almost too dark for the lads from Liverpool to pull off, yet they do. The drumbeat cooked up by Ringo is as hallucinatory as the lyrics are caustic and scary. Possibly the only good thing to come out of the disastrous movie adaptation of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the Aerosmith cover of this piercing track. If John hadn’t envisioned it for The Beatles he might have handed it to Steven Tyler (to be fair, the Earth, Wind, and Fire cover of “Got to Get You into My Life” is the only other decent tune to come out of that movie, but I digress).

All You Need Is Love (1967)

As if it weren’t enough for it to be a perfect anthem for the 1960s and every decade to follow, this beautiful tune debuted on one of the first global satellite TV broadcasts of all time, adding science to art to a community be-in that included Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton sitting on the floor. It also was well placed as the denouement resolution to the Yellow Submarine movie in lovingly crushing the Blue Meanies. Love, love, love.

Eleanor Rigby (1966)

“Ah, look at all the lonely people.” Yeah, on many days I’m one of them. When I was in high school the lyrics to this song somehow appeared in our poetry anthology. It was one of the more controversial classroom moments I can remember as a young student of literature and music, and I never forgot it. The question posed in English class was how to differentiate the contemporary (where the root word is “temporary”) from the canon worthy of poetic study. I wondered why that was important. I still do. “Eleanor Rigby” still makes the canon for me.

“Abbey Road Medley” (1969)

As I wrestled with the rest of the catalogue, I honestly couldn’t come up with a tenth song. I argued with myself and couldn’t find a way to win. I know it’s cheating, but I settled on the Abbey Road Medley, which is technically up to eight songs that begin with “You Never Give Me Your Money” and close with “The End.” Some people think it starts five songs later with “Golden Slumbers” and “Carry That Weight,” which is the shorter version Paul has been playing in his latest live tours as an encore. Regardless, it’s a powerful collection that spans the band’s musicality from rhythm solo to storytelling to full orchestration. It finishes big as a rocker. It’s how a lot of people remember the band coming to an end, myself included.

Agree, disagree, or want to chime in? I’m all ears, and always up for a good Beatles chat. Let me hear from you. Pretty soon these 50th anniversaries will have expired and we won’t have such a good excuse.

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Photo: Freda Kelly circa 1962 (a gift to the author)