How to Be a Visionary Without Overpromising and Underdelivering

Concept of self-driving car
Concept of self-driving car

In relatively short order over the last few years, Elon Musk, the native South African and visionary co-founder of PayPal, has established and built companies that already have begun creating new industries or rewriting the rules of old ones. He is dazzling customers and fans with his ability to commercialize technologies that not long ago ranked as fantasies.

Tesla has made expensive electric vehicles cool and promises to make EVs affordable. SpaceX has shown that, while still a work in progress, commercial enterprises can handle our extraterrestrial needs. Hyperloop is experimenting with very-high-speed, ground-based mass transport. And SolarCity is helping Americans unplug from the grid with its solar technology.

But while egotistical and never self-doubting, Musk likes to think of himself as more than fallible in the nitty-gritty of running these businesses, where his pride, and perhaps arrogance, has gotten him into trouble.

“Musk pushes boundaries, sometimes to the breaking point,” “renew[ing] questions about whether his reach may exceed his grasp.”

The most recent such episode is his defense of the Tesla self-driving system, Autopilot, after a Florida driver’s reliance on it got him killed. But there have been others lately as well, including an apparent self-dealing in Tesla’s plan to acquire SolarCity, and Musk’s penchant for promising Tesla investors that the company will meet sales and production targets—which it then misses, and which Musk then excuses.

Musk “pushes boundaries, sometimes to the breaking point,” noted Wall Street Journal columnist Christopher Mims, “renew[ing] questions about whether Musk’s reach may exceed his grasp—and that he is pushing beyond reasonable risk.

Yet, it isn’t clear whether Musk ultimately will demonstrate hubris that leads to severe difficulties for him and his enterprises in the months and years ahead, whether he will pull back on some of his Trumpesque excesses and conduct himself more conventionally—or whether he will continue the way he is leading today, and will quickly blow past his current difficulties to whole new levels of success.

Here are 4 things other CEOs—who, are encouraged to think of themselves as infallible visionaries—might learn from the current travails of Musk.

1. Don’t turn customers into guinea pigs. Although Tesla was clearly a leader in all-electric cars, in the self-driving derby, it was a follower. Then last year Musk revealed the company’s “Autopilot” technology, an iterative autonomous-driving system which he deemed superior to the competition.

Tesla stressed to its customers that they should never solely rely on Autopilot and always be ready to resume control of their vehicle; but Musk also personally encouraged Tesla drivers to rely on Autopilot, saying that even in its early form it is “twice as good” as any human driver. Tesla also stressed that it was “beta testing” Autopilot, like any new software program—though clearly human lives were on the line.

2. Beware the consequences of a cultish following. In a related learning, Musk has to know—and indeed encourages—customers, followers and fans to believe deeply that he is not only a technology savant but also as an uber visionary who sees so much further into the future than others that, well, surely he must be right about something as pedestrian as the present. Little wonder, then, that Joshua Brown, the Tesla owner who was fated to die, believed implicitly that Autopilot would keep him out of any danger and perhaps that the company’s warnings about an over-reliance on the system were mere boilerplate.  In fact, not that long ago, he’d made a YouTube video which demonstrated how the system had helped him avoid a previous potential crash.

3. Be truly honest and transparent. Musk makes a big deal of the fact that he communicates via blog and tweet at a moment’s notice, creating an impression that he’s one of the world’s most transparent business leaders of importance. Yet this is faux honesty, and Musk also has proven no more trustworthy than other obsessed visionaries when realities get in the way of their dreams. For instance, Musk has defended his proposal to combine Tesla and SolarCity as far-sighted vertical engineering; but while that may be, it also looks like a garden-variety example of nepotism and self-dealing, because Musk heads both money-losing companies, and his cousin is chairman of the solar-panel maker. Also, Tesla reportedly decided not to publicly disclose the Florida fatality before a $2-billion share sale because, the company said, it wasn’t a “material event.” A decision that important—as well as that obviously disingenuous—had to be made at the top of the company.

4. Know that the media giveth … and taketh away. According to reports by insiders, nothing irks Musk more than when news media make a big deal out of supposedly one-off events that, while reflecting poorly on Tesla, seem to be insignificant in the long run or statistically. These have included a New York Times review of an early Tesla Model S that lost power in a frigid Northeast winter; reports of isolated battery fires in the cars; even the Autopilot fatality which, Tesla noted from the beginning, was the first “in more than 130 million miles of driving” using the system.

Elon Musk may yet prove that his ideas are so big, the details of achieving them pale in comparison. Beware, however. Other CEOs have thought that, too.

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Dale Buss
Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other top-flight business publications. He lives in Michigan.

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