Jennifer Wells: Elon Musk's unfiltered behaviour makes Wall Street uncomfortable
Elon Musk: “I promised I wouldn’t swear on this show.”
Joe Rogan: “You’re f--ing Elon Musk. You can do whatever you want, man.”
By now the ash will have settled over the contentious six seconds in which Elon Musk accepted the joint passed to him by comedian Joe Rogan, took a delicate draw, exhaled, arched one eyebrow in a meh sort of way and shrugged. If he had coughed, he would have looked like a kid with their first cigarette.
It certainly had the whiff of a set-up. Lighting what he described as a roll of tobacco and marijuana, Rogan said, “You probably can’t, right? Because of stockholders.”
As we know, stockholders are not the Tesla CEO’s number one concern. Curiosity, however, is his trademark.
“Is that a joint?” Musk had asked Rogan in the lead up. “Or is it a cigar?”
And then, “I mean it’s legal, right?” (Yes. We’re talking California.)
Both the podcast host and the CEO were sipping Old Camp whiskey on ice at the time, prompting Musk to remark, insightfully, that “alcohol is a drug that’s been grandfathered in.”
It’s important to note that the six-second weed encounter occurred at two hours and 10 minutes into what journalists inevitably call a “wide-ranging” interview. Musk had been game and intellectually engaged throughout the podcast, as the conversation bounced across topics as various as artificial intelligence, the Easter egg that gets the Tesla Model X to “dance” to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (flashing headlights and flapping gull-wing doors), and the obvious arenas of sustainability, the future of the planet, the ignorance of others (he would like politicians to be better at science) and the fragility that comes with the kind of brilliance that does not allow the brain to turn off. “I don’t think you’d necessarily want to be me,” Musk said.
For any journalist who has spent time with a Super Tuscan-swilling CEO or a martini-spilling chairman or — dare we say — a powder-sniffing venture capitalist, the encounter was two things.
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And yet the reaction in some quarters of the business community propelled us back to the era of Assassin of Youth posters (“A puff — a party — a tragedy!”). CNN was distressed. Can you imagine JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon or General Motors CEO Mary Barra doing such a thing, one broadcaster asked.
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The General Motors example raises a more germane question. Could anyone other than Musk have kept Tesla alive through the 2008 financial crisis, the same crisis that caused GM to file for the largest industrial bankruptcy in U.S. history?
Barra was appointed to take charge in December 2013. A good soldier.
Musk is a conspicuously bright entrepreneur with a disarming habit of allowing the world into his inner thoughts. “Going to sleep alone kills me,” he told Rolling Stone. “It’s not like I don’t know what that feels like: being in a big, empty house, and the footsteps echoing through the hallway, no one there — and no one on the pillow next to you. F--, how do you make yourself happy in a situation like that.”
He makes Wall Street uncomfortable.
His unfiltered habits get him into trouble. His public musings, quickly discarded, about taking Tesla private have led to a lawsuit. The Aug. 6 departure of the company’s chief accounting officer after just a month on the job has been a public relations disaster, despite the insistence of the outgoing executive that he has the greatest faith in the company’s prospects. The company has an energetic habit of shedding executives. And Tesla’s shares closed down 6.3 per cent Friday, the day after the Rogan interview.
The Washington Post scanned these latest events and decreed that Musk is “approaching laughingstock status.”
That’s a rough assessment of a CEO who balances an optimistic view of human nature (”Most people are actually pretty good people”) against a dire assessment of the too-slow advance to sustainable energy which, of course, he fights against when he’s not selling Tesla made flame-throwers. (They’re not really flame-throwers but roofing torches attached to air rifle covers. Their creation was an amusing pastime. The CEO is a big fan of the movie Spaceballs. Apparently these thoughts are related.)
The disconnect was captured in something he said in Thursday’s interview: “I think people don’t totally understand what I do with my time. They think like I’m a business guy or something like that.”
The investor community will be calling for a “business guy” to move in to co-manage the company with the ideas guy. That case can be made. But don’t hang the argument on an incidental and inconsequential six-second reaction to a clever setup by a clever comedian.
Joe Rogan, by the way, is bringing his Strange Times Tour to Toronto on Sept. 29. On Friday he tweeted that the venue has been upgraded from the Ricoh Coliseum to the Scotiabank Arena. New tickets on sale now.
Jennifer Wells is a business columnist based in Toronto. Reach her on email: .