Elon Musk truly entered the public consciousness just over a decade ago, when Tesla (TSLA) was a quirky upstart putting batteries in the chassis of a little Lotus sports car. Musk grew it into an electric powerhouse, building cars that he promised would one day drive themselves, with doors that swung upward much like the time machine from Back to the Future.
Musk deftly played the part of a new kind of CEO, one who made jokes on Twitter, engaged with fans, and even sought to re-define the very idea of what “fun” could be in a car. Then things began to change. Increasingly, the risks Musk has been taking are not with his own money, or even his own life, but with the money, careers, reputations and lives of others. And the boundaries that once held him back are caving under the pressure.
This week, the fun CEO from the past has become something different. What that is exactly may depend on your view of him and the current pandemic. Maybe he’s a figure out of an Ayn Rand novel standing up against “sweeping, authoritarian and undemocratic restrictions on individual liberty” that are holding back business and the public, working for the greater good and ensuring that his workers can keep earning a living. Or maybe he’s just another old-school executive (albeit one who’s very attached to Twitter) demanding that he be allowed to send his non-unionized factory workers back to assemble cars at potential risk to their health and in violation of orders from the local health department in service of no greater purpose than his company’s profits.