The billionaire founder and boss of Tesla and SpaceX and the disgraced leader of Theranos might appear to have little in common. But Elon Musk is acting more and more like Elizabeth Holmes.
There are several clear similarities. Musk and Holmes pursued grand visions of changing the world through technology, the former with electric-powered transportation and the latter with blood tests that require just a droplet of blood. Both founded companies, fostered public personas as revolutionary thinkers and inspirational leaders, and attracted loyalists who fiercely protected them from criticism. Both are notoriously difficult bosses: Musk sets impossible targets and works his employees to breaking point, while Holmes made unreasonable and unrealistic demands of employees and kept track of when they arrived and left each day. Moreover, both have displayed eccentric and temperamental behaviour. Musk has attacked stock analysts for asking “boring bonehead questions” and called a British diver “a pedo” after he criticised a submersible Musk designed and sent to Thailand to help with the rescue of a local football team trapped in a subterranean cave. Meanwhile, Holmes emulated Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs by wearing black turtlenecks and embodying his various management styles as she read through his biography, and after a string of resignations she told her staff that she was building a religion and non-believers should leave.
The likeness has become starker as Musk continues to court controversy and lash out. He proposed taking Tesla private in a recent tweet and falsely claimed the funding for the move had been secured, then cried in a New York Times interview while describing how long hours and stress have driven him to sleeping pills and damaged his health. When media guru Ariana Huffington suggested he get more sleep, he replied in a 2.30 a.m. tweet, “you think this is an option. It is not”. Similarly, Holmes attacked the Wall Street Journal and threatened the newspaper’s sources after it reported Theranos had faked blood tests and deceived investors and customers about the state of its technology. However, she suffered a far steeper fall from grace when the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charged her and her second-in-command with “massive fraud”; her settlement included a $500,000 fine, the return of nearly 19 million shares in the company, and a decade-long ban from the C-suite of any public company.
It’s not surprising that two Silicon Valley tech executives showed similarities in their ambitions, public images, leadership and impulses. But supporters of Tesla, SpaceX and The Boring Company should be wary of Musk following his recent outbursts. Reckless tweets and emotional interviews might be products of burnout, sky-high expectations and a limited social life, but they could also indicate problems at his companies. The narrative of the visionary tech CEO transforming industries and making billions of dollars is seductive and hard to shake, but the Holmes travesty shows that even the most brilliant luminaries shouldn’t be spared scrutiny and scepticism.