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How Elon Musk stacks up to history's other idiosyncratic CEOs: Morning Brief

·6 min read
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Has there ever been a businessperson as unhinged as Elon Musk?

Sure, history is full of them. And Elon is partly an American archetype: A rogue, over-the-top, business mogul.

Included here are some of our most impactful business leaders — Thomas Edison, William Randolph Hearst, and Ted Turner, among others.

Along with their accomplishments, these leaders stretched societal norms and rules, and their eccentricities were inextricably bound with their innovation and acumen. Some also strayed close to — or squarely into — deceit and fraud. Hurtful and illegal behavior seems to come with the territory, which is not to excuse any of them.

The scope of Musk’s global influence far exceeds these forebears, in part because of technology. I think you could also argue his narcissism and need for attention is greater. Same for his depravity.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 02: 
  Elon Musk attends The 2022 Met Gala Celebrating
Elon Musk attends The 2022 Met Gala at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 02, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue)

Musk has also been anointed by some as the successor to Steve Jobs and America’s leading business light.

To a degree, this is true. But Jobs, who could be rude and unforgiving, wouldn’t have wasted his time with Twitter — either using it or buying it.

Jobs also had a holistic mindset. You don’t hear Musk and or any of his Paypal mafioso opining about calligraphy, rock music, Eastern religion, or much culture at all.

In fact, Musk is a mastermind of the post-Jobsian, engineer-driven, li-bro-tarian mindset prevalent amongst leaders in Silicon Valley. It’s data uber alles, fuzzy feelings be damned!

What has that given us? Some great technology, sure, but also a shocking disregard for privacy, democracy, and civility. Including, apparently, merger agreements.

And when it comes to Elon Musk and Twitter, this is where I think things stand today:

  • No one knows how Twitter v. Musk will turn out.

  • The lawyers will make tons of money.

  • No one knows what Elon wants — except to be in the spotlight.

  • Running a social media company is outside Elon’s core competency.

  • Not censoring content on Twitter is naive. You can’t allow pedophiles, opioid dealers and terrorists to run unfettered. You acknowledge there are limits and own them. Steve Jobs blocked porn from the Apple ecosystem.

  • The more Twitter frees up its content, which is supposed to grow the audience, the less valuable it becomes as companies don’t want their ads near junk.

  • Yes, Twitter is worth $28 billion and Meta is worth $445 billion. But let’s not forget Snap is worth $22 billion and Pinterest only $13 billion. Still, it’s fair to say that Twitter, with its huge influence in politics, media and celebrity — that those latter two don’t have — punches below its weight.

“What are Elon Musk’s values?” asks S. Mitra Kalita, journalist and CEO of URL Media. “Does he see social media as complicit in the crumbling of democracy? [Or] does he see it as essential in the rebuilding of democracy and institutions? What is necessary for success in leadership in 2022 is values and [which] honestly feels somewhat devoid from the conversation around his takeover of Twitter.”

Let’s now turn back to see where Elon fits in with other business iconoclasts.

Of course, there’ve been plenty of wing-nut businesspeople in American history.

Texas financier (and convicted felon) Shearn Moody Jr. “...was well known for eccentric behavior, such as building a slide from his bedroom window to a swimming pool, where he kept pet penguins....”

My recollection is that the penguins did not favor the weather in Galveston and quickly expired. But let’s move to the bigger fish.

Musk has been compared to Thomas Edison because both were polymaths and eccentrics.

Inventor Thomas Edison (1847-1931) inside his personal library, from L'Illustrazione Italiana, year LVIII, n 43, October 25, 1931.
Inventor Thomas Edison (1847-1931) inside his personal library, from L'Illustrazione Italiana, year LVIII, n 43, October 25, 1931.

Edison reportedly had a list of 150 interview questions for job candidates (i.e., “Where is the Sargasso Sea?”) He also liked to take them to a restaurant and test them by ordering soup.

Edison locked horns with the federal government and seems to have had some fake-til-you-make it in him. He warred obsessively with George Westinghouse and secretly worked to create the electric chair. (See: "The Current War.")

Media mogul William Randolph Hearst also had a thing for animals, but on a grand scale.

The zoo at Hearst Castle contained dozens of species including grizzly bears, lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, chimpanzees, orangutans, kinkajous, coatimundis, a tapir, and an elephant. Hearst goaded the U.S. into war with Spain, ran for President, collected tens of thousands works of art, made, lost, and made a fortune, and was virulently anti-Asian. Some of this became fodder for Orson Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane.

In his prime, from the 1970s to 1990s, Ted Turner, now 83, was constantly in the headlines.

Turner upended the world of TV with his superstation and CNN, which he vowed would stay on “until the end of the world,” when it would broadcast 'Nearer, My God, to Thee.’ Turner challenged Rupert Murdoch to a televised fistfight in Las Vegas, tried to take over CBS, and won the America’s Cup.

Along the way, Turner called people ‘bozos’ and ‘Jesus freaks,’ and said global warming would kill most of us and turn the rest into cannibals. He got married and divorced three times, including once to Jane Fonda.

THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON -- Aired 4/24/86 -- Pictured: (l-r) Businessman Ted Turner with host Johnny Carson -- Photo by: Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank
Businessman Ted Turner with Tonight Show host Johnny Carson, circa 1986. (Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Edison, Hearst, Turner, all wildly successful — and just plain wild too. Except that much of their behavior seems innocent compared to Musk.

Yes, Elon is a part of a continuum, but he’s also different.

“As Sigmund Freud reminded us, society is changed by its discontented people,” says Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, professor of management at Yale. “The world is different because of mercurial, creative people like Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and others. We can be better off for that, we also can be harmed for it if we don't do our part, [which is] not to acquiesce in the face of genius, but to also build up countervailing controls.”

Earlier this week, I was talking to New Yorker writer Patrick Radden Keefe about Musk, who said: “I'm a little sick of him to be honest with you, because I feel as though we're all living inside his head.”

"If you don’t like it, just opt out," I’m sure Musk would respond.

Says the man who wants to take over the world.

This article was featured in a Saturday edition of the Morning Brief on July 16, 2022. Get the Morning Brief sent directly to your inbox every Monday to Friday by 6:30 a.m. ET. Subscribe

Follow Andy Serwer, editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance, on Twitter: @serwer

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