From Pot Podcasts to Taboo Tesla Tweets, Musk’s Antics Continue

By Eve Tahmincioglu
September 10, 2018

What boards can do about “force-of-nature” CEOs.

The Air Force is reportedly looking into Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s recent appearance on a popular podcast because it appears to showing the embattled executive smoking marijuana. 

Musk’s appearance on the show set off alarms because “Musk's SpaceX provides services for the Air Force, with multiple high-value contracts. Marijuana use is prohibited for someone with a government security clearance, Fox Business reported, and is the central issue in the Air Force's inquiry.”

It’s the latest in unusual behavior by Musk, including a tweet storm last month when he claimed he wanted to take Tesla private and then changed his mind. The claims apparently surprised the company’s board; and they prompted a Securities and Exchange Commission inquiry.

Clearly, Musk marches to the beat of his own drummer, but in cases like this, what’s a board to do?

Corporate crisis and reputation adviser Davia B. Temin, CEO of Temin and Company Inc., weighs in:

There have always been "force-of-nature" CEOs. These are the geniuses who single-handedly build or propel organizations to new heights of innovation, achievement, profitability and impact. As a society, we tend to revere them, as much for their sins as for their sainthood. But, as directors, we are plunged into a conundrum. How much leeway do we give them, and when do we need to pull in the reigns?

Having served on several boards of organizations with iconic, force-of-nature CEOS, in good times I always felt that my job was to support them, have their backs, and more often than not, pick up after them, like the folks who follow racehorses. Because the results were brilliant, and well worth the agita.

But, in some of the situations, CEO genius eventually turned into madness or irreconcilable excess, and board supporters needed to have the courage to turn into disciplinarians, and then - sometimes - executioners. We appear to be on this cusp with Elon Musk.

The only way force-of-nature leaders can survive is if they know when enough is enough, and when it is time to reign in bad boy behavior, grow up, and step up to the mantle of leadership. Other peoples' livelihoods, savings, and plans rest in their hands, and they need to show some respect to systems that they may have even dissed in the past.

Musk has had ample opportunity to show his board, investors and others that he can grow up. And being a grown up CEO means that you know the eyes of the world are on you, even when you don't want them to be. It means you need to live up to the implicit bargain you have made with employees, investors and customers, to be worthy of their trust at all times.

Now that he has failed to fully live up to the bargain, his board needs to do the growing up for him. They need to have both the courage and wisdom to lay down the law, to set boundaries, and to enforce those boundaries.

First of course, it appears he needs some kind of help. I'm not close enough to know if it is a coach, a psychologist, a consigliore, a parent, or a physician. Maybe it’s just a bad cop, but it needs to be something. As a coach I know that not everyone is coachable. And if that is the case, and he cannot cure himself, then stronger actions need to be taken, from an enforced leave to termination. Or the directors themselves can resign.

Could there be a company without him?

The board hopefully has gone through enough succession planning to know. Someone needs to become the adult in the room – and ideally that should be board members Musk respects.  Perhaps with a strong hand, there is time to come back from the brink...but not much. There are few reprieves left until trust is shattered for good – even for an iconic force-of-nature CEO.