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The risks and rewards of Elon Musk’s self-coronation

Last week, Elon Musk anointed himself “technoking” of Tesla, the electric car company where he holds the more conventional role of chief executive.

Elon Musk speaks during the Satellite 2020 conference at the Washington Convention Center on March 9, 2020.

Elon Musk speaks during the Satellite 2020 conference at the Washington Convention Center on March 9, 2020.

Last week, Elon Musk anointed himself “technoking” of Tesla, the electric car company where he holds the more conventional role of chief executive.

Like previous unorthodox Musk moves, the two-sentence declaration in a regulatory filing divided watchers into two camps: Those who see the entrepreneur as a revolutionary, and those who think he is merely revolting.

The likelihood that this is another joke at the expense of the corporate and financial establishment seems high.

The announcement has a cartoonish quality.

In the same statement, Tesla said its chief financial officer (CFO) would henceforth be known as “master of coin”, a title that comes straight from Game of Thrones (and is not a particularly auspicious choice, given the fictional Iron Throne’s patchy financial record).

I am no fan of title inflation, or the parallel trend for weird C-level inventions, from chief fun officer to vice-president of mindfulness, but Tesla’s clowning could also have a serious side. Titles matter.

Just ask the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, whose concerns about whether son Archie would become a prince were one bone of contention in their rift with the royal family.

Plenty of ambitious people, from executives to journalists, haggle to add “chief” to their business card.

Give a team member the label “leader” and he or she will start behaving like a high-handed boss, while colleagues grovel like minions, a well-known study published in 2013 by three American university professor shows.

But as social scientist and co-author Leigh Tost pointed out in a separate 2015 paper about power for the journal Research in Organizational Behavior, a “mere title” is unlikely to be enough to exert authority unless the holder also has control of resources, such as money, information, or decision-making opportunities.

Self-styling, in other words, is nothing without substance.

Titles can send useful signals, even so.

By calling his CFO “master of coin”, Mr Musk has added more fuel to speculation about Tesla’s long-term interest in bitcoin, where the carmaker has already invested US$1.5 billion of its reserves.

In a less meme-worthy, but arguably more significant announcement earlier this month, Tesla also named the president of its automotive division to a new, conventionally titled role as “president, heavy trucking”, underlining the group’s determination to bring its battery-powered “Semi” trucks to market.

Trying on a made-up title has benefits, too.

The positive impact was notable when one regional chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, a United States charity that helps grant the wishes of seriously ill children, invited staff to adopt a fun title that reflected how they saw themselves in the organisation.

The chief executive dubbed herself “fairy godmother of wishes”, the CFO became the “king of cashola”, and so on.

Employees said the exercise helped them ward off burnout and build a rapport with outsiders, according to a 2013 study for the Academy of Management Journal.

The titles also broke down barriers between colleagues, making them more comfortable about seeking support from each other.

When researchers tried the same approach in US hospitals, staff chose more sober handles (an infectious diseases specialist became “germ slayer”, an X-ray technician “bone seeker”), but they too reported lower stress levels and an improved feeling of psychological safety.

If Mr Musk really had the courage of his convictions, he would invite all his staff to make up an additional title.

Professor Dan Cable of London Business School, a co-author of the 2014 study, says it would signal that “we’re the kind of organisation that cares not just about bureaucracy and standardisation, but also self-expression”.

Mr Musk, who has a reputation for working round the clock, might even find that his jokey self-coronation helps ward off burnout. Light-hearted retitling is not for everyone.

Some outsiders were nonplussed by the titles of Make-A-Wish staff, hinting that they were unprofessional.

One hospital staff member said that “as a physician and a female, I feel less inclined to have another title than MD/doctor”.

I might not want frivolity from the rocket scientist designing my Musk-backed Mars landing craft, or the engineer of my 30-tonne electric truck.

Critically, fundamental duties still have to be fulfilled. “You can call yourself king of cashola,” says Prof Cable, “but the books still have to balance”.

Chief executives such as Mr Musk need to take particular care.

Prof Cable’s paper suggests “self-aggrandising titles”, such as Steve Jobs’s self-description as Apple’s “chief know-it-all”, can backfire, particularly if expectations and reality diverge.

You don’t need to be a Game of Thrones fan to know what happens to kings who fail to keep their subjects happy. FINANCIAL TIMES

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the Financial Times.

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