Is It Smart to Be a ‘Stupid Genius’ Like Elon Musk?
Yale SOM leadership expert Jeffrey Sonnenfeld asks if the CEO’s eccentricities and forgotten promises are undermining his leadership of Twitter, Tesla, and SpaceX.
This commentary originally appeared in Fortune.
Do you try to do too much and get intoxicated with your past success? You might be a stupid genius like Elon Musk—a person who is brilliant in certain limited domains and inept or even emotionally immature in others. If so, prepare for bad days—or consider how to put the brakes on your imagination and ambition, just a touch.
We all have bad days. On April 20, Elon Musk’s much-touted $3 billion new SpaceX rocket became a fireball over the Gulf of Mexico three minutes into its first flight. Musk’s company labeled the explosion a “rapid unscheduled disassembly.” Sure, as Musk, Space X, and NASA insist, something was learned about the failures of the stages to separate and the engines to function, as we can learn from most setbacks. But whatever you label it, it was a costly failure they’d have preferred avoiding.
Tragically, the very same day Musk’s automotive juggernaut Tesla nosedived after reporting disappointing first-quarter results. That translated to a $13 billion loss for Musk on top of the $3 billion that had flamed out on the space launch. For most people, $16 billion in losses would be devastating, but Musk is still the world’s second-wealthiest person with a total net worth of $164 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaire Index.
Additionally, Musk backtracked a second time on his user-hostile verification policies. And let’s not forget he also abandoned his decision to pull out of buying Twitter for an overpriced $44 billion after costly distracting litigation and public taunts at Twitter’s former leaders. His ad hominem insults against regulators and a heroic British Navy diver, as well as his interactions with flamboyant race-baiting figures and other diversions, seem less than smart.
Meanwhile, the list of missed promises grows longer, including: a fleet of 1 million autonomous taxis he promised by 2020, fully autonomous cars promised by 2017, the Tesla Semi truck by 2018, vehicles that fly and float, Neuralink brain implants by 2020, a Space X mission to Mars, open-source Twitter algorithms last fall, Boring Company tunnels connecting major cities such as Las Vegas and Los Angeles by last year, and a 10-kilometer hyperloop tunnel by 2020.
In March 2023, research revealed that Solar City, the inside enterprise forced upon Tesla shareholders in 2016, has sold only 3,000 solar roof systems, instead of the company’s promised 1,000 per month—or about a 99% failure to achieve the target. Given all this volatility, Tesla board members cannot get liability insurance and must be insured by Musk personally!
And let’s not even address his volatile family and romantic life, which makes Mozart, Einstein, and Jobs look almost conventional. Alas, Mozart, Einstein, and Job were erratic geniuses as well.
Musical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed more than 800 major works, mastering every musical genre of his era, earning him the distinction of being one of the world’s greatest composers in his short 35 years. However, his eccentricities—from his scatological humor and bawdiness in his writing to frenzied sudden impulsive acts such as leaping around the room in public like a cat—led some to believe that he suffered from some mental pathology. Endocrinologist Benjamin Simkin mapped the paradox of Mozart’s majestic music and erratic personality in his book, Medical and Musical Byways of Mozartiana, coming to the diagnosis that Mozart probably suffered from Tourette’s Syndrome.
The name Einstein is often used as shorthand for genius. Theoretical physicist Albert Einstein is widely regarded as one of the most influential scientists and thinkers of all time. He is credited for developing two of the most foundational pillars of modern physics: relativity and quantum mechanics. However, his misogynistic manifestos with servile rules for his partners in early marriages and a volatile personal life led biographer Walter Isaacson to conclude that “his conquest of general relativity proved easier than finding the forces for the formulas swirling within his family.”
Isaacson, who is also the brilliant biographer of Apple founder Steve Jobs, described the array of eccentricities of this other genius. He revealed the array of situations where Jobs was spiteful, rigid, and arrogant: career-long feuds against Google and Adobe, insisting that he would not meet with President Obama until personally invited, odd binge diets, winning highly extended staring contests, and a disdain for bathing. In his first run as CEO, Jobs sparked ferocious internal warfare between divisions, and took sides in the feud between the Lisa and Mac teams. In light of his own volatile home life, he confessed to Isaacson that he wanted the book to be a guide to absent fathers.
Are these personality quirks the essence of their brilliance or pathological eccentricities which sabotage greatness and should not be excused? Sometimes, it’s a conduct that is actively chosen by mid-career revolutionaries. In 1958, psychologist Edwin Hollander coined the term “idiosyncrasy credits” to explain how leaders emerge by rising up to group norms and earn the right to be quite non-conforming. The leader’s unconventional actions become a device to trigger more innovative behavior later in their career.
Finding your own balance on the spectrum of appropriate conduct as a creative force means considering a few factors: Is your conduct necessary or just based on affect? Is the erratic behavior deceitful to colleagues, shareholders, or others? Does it free your schedule from drowning in needless admin, schedules, and routines? Or is your unusual behavior actually a form of insidious conformity in an environment that rewards it, such as a university, an ad agency, a software firm, or a fashion house? Is your flamboyance hurting others and eroding trust? Is it leading to legal and cultural backlashes that divert your time and impact? Do you have the wrong role models in mind?
I could list hundreds of the greatest Nobel Prize winners and path-breaking entrepreneurs who were not stupid geniuses. As philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote in 1818, “It has often been remarked that there is a side at which genius and madness touch, and even pass over into each other.” Yet, we must keep in mind that insanity does not guarantee brilliance, cruelty does not produce creativity, and arrogance is not a recipe for impact.