What’s Maverick Musk Missing?

Elon Musk splits opinion down the middle. Brilliant maverick or maniac? Take your pick.

Tesla’s travails have brought his qualities as a leader into sharp focus. It’s tough to argue with his achievements and in an age when “getting things done” stands above all else, Musk has few entrepreneurial equals. However, there is a way to get things done, and one argument says that if Musk wasn’t so unconventional, so individual, maybe he could have accomplished more. It’s a big maybe, but it’s an interesting thought.

Tesla straddles Origin’s two worlds. Firstly, in spite of its size, Tesla still runs like a technology startup. The company bootstraps, lurching from funding round to funding round (even post IPO), furiously testing and iterating. It continues to go through the many stages of evolution that we’re going through, too. As a startup founder, this makes the latest saga compelling viewing.

The company’s current financial position is also a fascinating fixed income case study, with their CDS trading in the mid-high 500s and $1.8bn of high yield bonds trading at 87c on the dollar… (not even counting the debt it took on when it bought Solar City). Reassuring nervy investors who are beginning to question Musk’s leadership will be critical.

Thought pieces about Musk are either incredibly supportive or hypercritical. I’ll leave it to others to decide if he is (as his famous biography wants you to believe) one of the titans of our age or an opportunist who built his fortune on tax breaks and government largesse associated with the green movement.

Undeniably, Musk has an unparalleled ability to be brave, ambitious, and dream big. But, in order to realise their potential, an entrepreneur must also be meticulous, focused, and crucially, must be able to say no. Having the ability to confidently reject opportunities that might be a distraction allows an entrepreneur to put all their efforts into achieving their most important goal.

Talking as a business owner, as I watch the Tesla saga play out, it feels as if something’s amiss. Whilst Musk may have an abundance of ambition and drive, he clearly finds it difficult to focus.

One of my favourite stories is a tale of a conversation between Warren Buffett and his personal pilot, Mike Flint. They were discussing Flint’s life and career goals, and came up with 25 items. Buffett asked Flint to identify the 5 most important, which he did, and then boldly claimed he’d start working on them right away. When asked about the other 20, Flint said he’d look at them intermittently as he was working on the main 5. Buffett immediately replied, “No. You’ve got it wrong, Mike. Everything you didn’t circle just became your ‘avoid at all cost list.’ No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.”

By saying no, we focus, and by focusing we get things done.

As Tesla, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, flamethrowers, Azealia Banks, ‘Funding secured’ and the SEC keep on coming, I can’t help but think that Musk’s troubles are 99% self-inflicted. He’s spending his finite energy on the wrong things. If he was a little more focused, he would be a lot more productive. And, if you consider what he’s achieved given his current approach, imagine what he could achieve?

But can you ever contain a maverick? Should you bother to try? Their nature means that they’re individuals who choose to fly close to the hard deck.

One solution that has been suggested many times is that Musk needs a COO. And, in order to find someone who will stand up to him, he needs an independent board. Maverick personalities (Jobs, Page/Brin, Zuckerberg) who built tech giants (Apple, Google, Facebook) sought partners (Cook, Schmidt, Sandberg) who gave balance and ensured focus. Musk needs an equivalent now before he does irreparable damage to all that he’s built. Every Maverick needs a Goose, and every visionary entrepreneur needs an operational wingman. Even Musk.

At Origin, I’m lucky. And so is Rob. We have each other and, be it by fate or otherwise, we each have complementary skills. Which one is Goose and which one is Maverick? Well, that’s up for debate in the office, but one thing’s for certain, we’ve only got this far and stand any chance of going any further because we work together.