Tesla’s story has been such a soap opera that it’s hard to know which twists and turns are worth heeding. Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s pathos-laden interview published Friday by The New York Times might seem like just another distraction, but it’s probably as important as anything to do with Tesla’s manufacturing or sales.
After all, the most important factor in Tesla’s success is not its electric drivetrains, sleek styling or stunning performance, but its uniquely inspiring CEO. Musk’s ability to present himself as the architect of a gleaming science fiction future has made Tesla’s cars and stock into symbols of triumphant techno-optimism, lending their owners a piece of Musk’s heroic appeal. So when the world’s most famous optimist admits that friends are concerned about him and that “the worst is yet to come,” it’s every bit as important as a missed production or financial goal.Tesla’s greatest strength has been becoming a weakness for some time. A Rolling Stone profile last year provided the first undeniable glimpse of Musk’s emotional instability, and tweets about drug use presaged the latest revelations that Musk’s use of the sleep aid Ambien has worried Tesla’s board of directors.
To those versed in the challenges of the auto industry, Musk’s wild-eyed ambitions and bizarre pronouncements have always smacked of a disconnect from reality. So too has Tesla’s utter dependence on its CEO.
Making cars is the ultimate team sport, and in general, industry leaders are more committed to their teams than their own images. Though widely seen as a futuristic figure, Musk is in many ways a throwback to the swashbuckling early days of the auto industry when forceful personalities led a handful of companies to lasting success, and many more to bankruptcy and the ash heap of history.
Musk stands out so sharply in the automotive landscape because he has stepped into an American cultural archetype that has been largely abandoned. The auto industry has become increasingly consolidated and risk-averse, and while the cult of Elon may seem modern and new, it brings with it profound risks of a bygone era.
This makes Tesla an automotive story like no other, but it also puts those of us who tell its story in the awkward position of having to find the all-too-vague line between the company and the man. As Musk’s personal crisis takes center stage, drawing this line becomes even more difficult. Tesla’s triumphs and tragedies hold a host of important lessons for an auto industry on the cusp of profound change. For all the teachable moments relating to design, manufacturing and public relations, the most important lesson is turning out to be that the power of an individual’s appeal may be too delicate to stake the fate of a company worth tens of billions on.
If Tesla has become more celebrity melodrama than industrial case study, the blame belongs as much on Musk’s enablers — from online fan forums to the media to Tesla’s board of directors — as on Musk himself. The dream that one man could single-handedly accomplish the impossible was so powerful that millions of people unwittingly contributed to the pressures that have created this situation.