The Clarifying Moment Elon Musk Has Given Us

7 minute read

Huffington is the founder and CEO of Thrive Global

Elon Musk’s chaotic leadership of Twitter has brought us to a clarifying moment in how we think about work, leadership, and peak performance. On the one hand, his burnout-fueled decision-making seems like a regression—a step, or many steps, backwards, given what we know about the connection between human energy and decision-making. But on the other hand, he’s showing us the vivid results of that backward-looking model: total chaos. Musk’s second month at Twitter has been an extension of his master class in how not to make decisions. And the lesson is clear: we only have so much cognitive energy—and what we choose to spend it on, and how we renew it, really matters.

Last week began with Musk installing mattresses at Twitter’s offices in San Francisco, which spurred an investigation by city officials, since the move could violate safety codes. Musk’s move to “go to the mattresses” wasn’t surprising, given his earlier proclamation that Twitter would be “extremely hardcore.” In response to the investigation, Musk angrily tweeted at San Francisco Mayor London Breed that he was just “providing beds for tired employees.” By week’s end, Musk was posting a tweet calling for the prosecution of Anthony Fauci. And on Thursday night, without warning he banned several journalists, including reporters from The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN. Meanwhile, as Musk was consumed with Twitter, the stock price of Tesla declined 14% in just the past five days.

What’s most surprising is that this is the same man who so brilliantly transformed the automotive industry by shifting from a less efficient and nonrenewable energy source with a lot of downstream negative costs—like burning up the planet—to a more efficient and renewable one. So how does this scienceand data-driven genius adopt such an incredibly backward idea of how human energy works? It’s the equivalent of Musk announcing that the next Tesla model will be running on coal—which would be fitting, because the Industrial Revolution is the model he’s using for human energy. That’s when our collective approach to work was defined by the idea that humans are machines, and more time up and operating meant a higher rate of production.

Now we know that this is actually not how humans achieve peak performance. In fact, many super successful CEOs (including Satya Nadella and Jeff Bezos) seem to know about the connection between sleep, recovery, and peak performance. High performance athletes like LeBron James, Mikaela Shiffrin and Tom Brady know. The military knows. In October 2020, the Army released its first updated field and fitness manual in eight years with sections on sleep. “To achieve optimal readiness, soldiers must have sleep and the more sleep obtained the better,” the manual reads. “Sleep is necessary to sustain not only alertness, but also higher-order cognitive abilities such as judgment, decision making and situational awareness.”

In a 2017 piece on Thrive entitled “Sleep Is a Weapon,” Admiral Jim Stavridis, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, contrasted this with the burnout-fueled model. “That sort of cultural approach in the military—of the leader as super-human and not in need of rest—is a mistake, and our military leaders must recognize that to make the right decisions—ethical, moral and tactical — they must regard sleep as a weapon that strengthens and enhances their performance as surely as the latest technology,” he wrote. “Rested commanders are the best commanders.”

Last week, The New York Times ran a piece about the increasing presence of high-achieving executives and CEOs in Ironman triathlons. And here’s Matt Dixon, who has coached several of them: “A lack of sleep used to be a badge of toughness amongst high-performing people. Now it’s a badge of stupidity. Every single high-performing CEO that I work with prioritizes sleep. Every single one. I don’t work with a CEO who doesn’t sleep at least seven hours every night.”

Of course, Musk is hardly the only one ignoring the science, especially in the tech world, which has long been the boiler rooms of burnout. The newly arrested FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried is another recent cautionary tale, described by Insider as “famously sleeping four hours a night on a beanbag chair next to his desk and taking calls from clients and investors at 3 a.m.”

But even in tech, the culture is shifting. The Information reported on tech’s “overnight shift”—how, instead of moving mattresses into their offices, Silicon Valley leaders are now optimizing their smart mattresses for sleep: “The biggest flex in the tech world used to be bragging about how little you slept—now it’s a high sleep score.”

Every day Musk has been proving the high costs of this unscientific way of using his energy—monetary costs, brand costs, opportunity costs. And that’s all in addition to the undeniable health costs. They may not be obvious right away but we have tons of data that show us how dangerously real the health costs of burnout are. This is a man running multiple major companies—and he’s wasting time, day and night, trolling the world on Twitter? With results that are not exactly an advertisement for burnout as a badge for high performance.

Advertisers are taking note, with half of Twitter’s top 100 advertisers pausing their ads, while investors shorting Tesla have made $11.5 billion so far this year. And there have been multiple reports on Tesla investors increasingly frustrated with “Musk’s erratic behavior.” As one investor put it, sounding like the exasperated parent of a toddler, “You’ve got a great car company — just stop it.” On Wednesday, Tesla’s third-largest individual shareholder, Leo KoGuan, called on Musk to step down as Tesla CEO, tweeting, “Elon abandoned Tesla and Tesla has no working CEO. Tesla needs and deserves to have working full time CEO.”

Mario Natarelli, of MBLM, an agency that researches the connection between brands and consumers, recently spoke about what Musk is doing to his great car company. “This is creating real damage for the Tesla brand,” he told Automotive News. “When I see people commenting that they are no longer considering a Tesla car or are embarrassed to drive it, I think that’s reaching the point of significant equity damage for the brand.” According to the U.K.-based research firm YouGov, Tesla’s approval rating fell into negative territory for the first time last month.

Tesla’s not just any great car company, but a revolutionary car company whose founder is now spending way too much of his valuable energy on stunts like auctioning Twitter’s espresso machines. It’s not about how much money this will or won’t bring in—it’s about the cognitive opportunity costs of even thinking it up. As Steve Jobs once said, “Focus is about saying no. And the result of that focus is going to be some really great products.” And great companies.

So yes, Musk’s Twitter working model is a regression. But so many business leaders in every industry are going the other way (the future-looking way)—and following the science. They know the costs of trying to power through burnout for themselves and for their employees. And for the few who don’t, Musk is hopefully doing us the service of providing an overdue kiss of death for the backward-looking, anti-science, bad-for-humans and bad-for-business idea that burnout, performance, and great business results are somehow a match made in heaven. If Burnout Inc. were a company, the short sellers would be making a fortune.

Correction, December 20: An earlier version misspelled Mario Natarelli’s last name.

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