Elon Musk’s Lessons From Hell: Five Commandments for Business | Kanebridge News
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Elon Musk’s Lessons From Hell: Five Commandments for Business

New book by biographer Walter Isaacson explores the billionaire’s leadership style and ‘demon mode’

Wed, Sep 13, 2023 8:32amGrey Clock 4 min

Simply put: Elon Musk can be a real jerk.

And that has probably helped and hurt him in business, according to a new biography by Walter Isaacson.

In “Elon Musk,” out Tuesday, Isaacson puts forth the idea of “demon mode” to explain the temperamental impulses behind some of the tycoon’s successes—and setbacks. But it isn’t just demon mode that has fuelled his rise. Isaacson details other teachable ways the billionaire’s methods have helped make him the world’s richest man.

Both sides of Musk are sure to become part of B-school lore for a new generation of would-be entrepreneurs and business managers picking and choosing which traits and tactics to emulate.

Isaacson had previously made the concept of the “reality distortion field” popular with his bestselling 2011 book about Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and his ability to bend perception to motivate others.

Demon mode was on display in 2018 as Musk struggled to ramp up production of Tesla’s Model 3 sedan, which nearly destroyed the electric-car company and which the CEO dubbed production hell.

That experience through hell, the book says, also helped Musk shape five commandments for how he wants problems solved by his workers across his companies, from rocket maker SpaceX to social-media platform X, formerly Twitter.

Musk, in the book, calls the framework for problem solving “the algorithm.” In short, Musk urges his employees to:

  • Question every requirement
  • Delete any part or process you can
  • Simplify and optimise
  • Accelerate cycle time
  • Automate

“His executives sometimes move their lips and mouth the words, like they would chant the liturgy along with their priest,” Isaacson wrote of Musk’s mantra.

In the book, Musk acknowledges he talks about the approach often. “I became a broken record on the algorithm,” Musk is quoted as saying. “But I think it’s helpful to say it to an annoying degree.”

The approach builds off a long-held method for problem solving touted by Musk called first principles, a reasoning that breaks tasks into their very basics without simply reverting to what has been done before.

“The algorithm is a five-step process for not only making good products and designing good products, but manufacturing them,” Isaacson said in an interview Monday.

Throughout his book, Walter Isaacson chases the question of whether Elon Musk could be successful any other way. PHOTO: ARIEL ZAMBELICH/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“It begins with first principles. He says, question every requirement, and, by first principles he means, look down at the physics. If somebody says, no, we can’t build it at this price, he says, tell me how much the materials cost. Tell me exactly what’s involved here and then tell me you can or can’t do it.”

There are other lessons in the book that Musk has long practiced, such as never asking an employee to do something you aren’t willing to do (hence his sleeping on factory floors), hiring employees based on their attitude, and saying “it’s OK to be wrong. Just don’t be confident and wrong.”

Telling Musk bad news, however, has been seen by some employees as dangerous to one’s career.

“One of his problems is people sometimes are afraid to tell him the bad news,” Isaacson said. “Those who succeed around Musk are those who figure out you got to give him the bad news even if it’s going to result in some unpleasant scenes.”

Their fear is often rooted in demon mode.

Claire Boucher, known as the musician Grimes and the mother of three of Musk’s children, coined the term in an interview with Isaacson.

“Demon mode is when he goes dark and retreats inside the storm in his brain,” Boucher said in the book. “Demon mode,” she added, “causes a lot of chaos but it also gets s— done.”

And Musk has gotten a lot done, helping usher in the electric-car era as Tesla chief executive and igniting the commercial space race with SpaceX, which he founded. His messy stewardship of X, however, is testing public perception of his business genius.

Isaacson, who shadowed Musk for two years in reporting the book, saw demon mode in person several times along with other personalities that he described as ranging from silly to charming. He suggests the roots of the dark clouds come from the 52-year-old’s childhood in South Africa.

“It’s almost like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde where a cloud comes over and he gets into a trance and he can just be tough in a cold way,” Isaacson said. “He never gets really angry, never gets that physical, but coldly brutal to people and he almost doesn’t remember afterwards what he’s done. Sometimes I’ll say, why did you say that to that person? And he’ll look at me blankly as if he didn’t quite remember what happened while he was in demon mode.”

In one instance, Isaacson described seeing demon mode emerge when Musk saw SpaceX’s launchpad in South Texas empty late one evening.

“He orders a hundred people to come in from different parts of SpaceX from Florida, California so they can all work for 24 hours a day getting this thing done even though there was no need to,” Isaacson said.

Such surges seem to play in tandem to Musk’s need for drama.

“He is a drama magnet,” Musk’s younger brother, Kimbal, said in the book. “That’s his compulsion, the theme of his life.”

Isaacson cautions that readers shouldn’t come away thinking they can be just like Musk and automatically succeed. Rather, he said, readers should see both how leaders such as Musk and the late Jobs were effective and also take away cautionary tales.

“You don’t have to be this mean,” he said.

Still, throughout his book, Isaacson chases the question of whether Musk could be successful any other way.

“I try to show how that’s one of the strands in a fabric and as Shakespeare said, we’re moulded out of our faults,” Isaacson said. “If we pull that strand out, you might not get the whole cloth of Elon Musk.”


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First, the good news for office landlords: A post-Labor Day bump nudged return-to-office rates in mid-September to their highest level since the onset of the pandemic.

Now the bad: Office attendance in big cities is still barely half of what it was in 2019, and company get-tough measures are proving largely ineffective at boosting that rate much higher.

Indeed, a number of forces—from the prospect of more Covid-19 cases in the fall to a weakening economy—could push the return rate into reverse, property owners and city officials say.

More than before, chief executives at blue-chip companies are stepping up efforts to fill their workspace. Facebook parent Meta Platforms, Amazon and JPMorgan Chase are among the companies that have recently vowed to get tougher on employees who don’t show upIn August, Meta told employees they could face disciplinary action if they regularly violate new workplace rules.

But these actions haven’t yet moved the national return rate needle much, and a majority of companies remain content to allow employees to work at least part-time remotely despite the tough talk.

Most employees go into offices during the middle of the week, but floors are sparsely populated on Mondays and Fridays. In Chicago, some September days had a return rate of over 66%. But it was below 30% on Fridays. In New York, it ranges from about 25% to 65%, according to Kastle Systems, which tracks security-card swipes.

Overall, the average return rate in the 10 U.S. cities tracked by Kastle Systems matched the recent high of 50.4% of 2019 levels for the week ended Sept. 20, though it slid a little below half the following week.

The disappointing return rates are another blow to office owners who are struggling with vacancy rates near record highs. The national office average vacancy rose to 19.2% last quarter, just below the historical peak of 19.3% in 1991, according to Moody’s Analytics preliminary third-quarter data.

Business leaders in New York, Detroit, Seattle, Atlanta and Houston interviewed by The Wall Street Journal said they have seen only slight improvements in sidewalk activity and attendance in office buildings since Labor Day.

“It feels a little fuller but at the margins,” said Sandy Baruah, chief executive of the Detroit Regional Chamber, a business group.

Lax enforcement of return-to-office rules is one reason employees feel they can still work from home. At a roundtable business discussion in Houston last week, only one of the 12 companies that attended said it would enforce a return-to-office policy in performance reviews.

“It was clearly a minority opinion that the others shook their heads at,” said Kris Larson, chief executive of Central Houston Inc., a group that promotes business in the city and sponsored the meeting.

Making matters worse, business leaders and city officials say they see more forces at work that could slow the return to office than those that could accelerate it.

Covid-19 cases are up and will likely increase further in the fall and winter months. “If we have to go back to distancing and mask protocols, that really breaks the office culture,” said Kathryn Wylde, head of the business group Partnership for New York City.

Many cities are contending with an increase in homelessness and crime. San Francisco, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., which are struggling with these problems, are among the lowest return-to-office cities in the Kastle System index.

About 90% of members surveyed by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce said that the city couldn’t recover until homelessness and public safety problems were addressed, said Rachel Smith, chief executive. That is taken into account as companies make decisions about returning to the office and how much space they need, she added.

Cuts in government services and transportation are also taking a toll. Wait times for buses run by Houston’s Park & Ride system, one of the most widely used commuter services, have increased partly because of labor shortages, according to Larson of Central Houston.

The commute “is the remaining most significant barrier” to improving return to office, Larson said.

Some landlords say that businesses will have more leverage in enforcing return-to-office mandates if the economy weakens. There are already signs of such a shift in cities that depend heavily on the technology sector, which has been seeing slowing growth and layoffs.

But a full-fledged recession could hurt office returns if it results in widespread layoffs. “Maybe you get some relief in more employees coming back,” said Dylan Burzinski, an analyst with real-estate analytics firm Green Street. “But if there are fewer of those employees, it’s still a net negative for office.”

The sluggish return-to-office rate is leading many city and business leaders to ask the federal government for help. A group from the Great Lakes Metro Chambers Coalition recently met with elected officials in Washington, D.C., lobbying for incentives for businesses that make commitments to U.S. downtowns.

Baruah, from the Detroit chamber, was among the group. He said the chances of such legislation being passed were low. “We might have to reach crisis proportions first,” he said. “But we’re trying to lay the groundwork now.”


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