The Rock Star CEO Myth Is Killing Silicon Valley

Just because guys like Elon Musk founded a company doesn’t mean they're qualified to run them.

Silicon Valley leadership

The "genius founder-cum-CEO" trope is indelibly entrenched in Valley culture, and it’s easy to understand why: It’s the American Dream distilled into its simplest terms. Have a great idea, work your ass off, and success is assured. But it’s never been that simple, not for Alexander Graham Bell or Henry Ford or Steve Jobs. For every great entrepreneur, there’s a diverse cadre of people toiling away to help realize that vision. And the only way to motivate, deliver, and expand is through unwavering leadership matched with the ability to accept criticism—two traits increasingly in short supply on the engineer-driven West Coast.

The latest case-in-point comes courtesy of the Wall Street Journal, which looked at Tesla Motors and Elon Musk’s propensity for over-promising and under-delivering. “In the past five years . . . Tesla has fallen short of more than 20 projections made by Mr. Musk,” the WSJ reported. “The company missed 10 of his stated goals by an average of nearly a year.”

Those facts won't come as a surprise to any Tesla observer. But what may be more surprising—and troubling—are the two employees that claim to have been fired after disclosing flaws in design and production to their superiors, including Musk.

Cristina Balan, a designer at the automaker, and Chris Van Wert, Tesla’s former director of product excellence, both told the Journal that their departures from the company were directly related to issues they raised about manufacturing problems. In the case of Van Wert and a problem with moldings on the Model X, he told the paper that Musk summoned him and a dozen other managers into a conference room to discuss the issue. Musk asked Van Wert to leave the room with him, at which point he claims Musk fired him on the spot.

Similar situations have played out at nearly every level within Tesla, from engineering to communications and marketing, but very few employees come forward, fearing retribution.

"I believe in what [Tesla] is doing," one former employee said on the condition of anonymity. "But it's hard to do good work when everyone feels like the smallest mistake could get you fired."

Tesla devotees' knee-jerk reaction to these claims is to defend Musk and Co. at all costs. Yes, he's trying to change the world. Yes, we need sustainable and safer transportation. And yes, upending a century-old industry is a massive undertaking that requires laser focus and hard decisions. But innovating—even revolutionizing—an industry is one part imagination and two parts execution. Lofty proclamations are easy; delivering on those at the level of quality that customers expect is another.

These are a hard-learned lessons that cover every upstart automaker, from Kaiser to Tucker to Fisker. These weren’t failure of ideas (okay, some were) but the failure to execute on those ideas at a high quality and an even higher scale. And more often than not, it’s not the line worker, engineer, or designer that’s failed—it’s the crew at the tip of the corporate pyramid.

It would be easy to chalk this up as a problem solely affecting Tesla, but similar situations are playing out across nearly every sector in Silicon Valley. And it's the transportation side—where the theoretical becomes manifest and hits the road—that brings it into starker relief.

The Valley is littered with disgruntled ex-pats that have left a range of companies in the transportation space, and nearly all have a similar refrain: The work was great, but the management was terrible.

Even a cursory glance at LinkedIn shows former Tesla employees at every level absconding to everywhere from Apple to Atevia. These aren't self-important millennials or people looking for greener pastures, for the most part, but for places where their work and their opinions are respected and considered. These are the people we want working on a safer, more sustainable future.

Unfortunately, the same issues tend to surface no matter where they land in the Bay Area.

Every industry has leaders who don’t heed the advice of their employees and advisers, but the propensity for that to happen in the Bay Area is often far beyond what you’ll find in other sectors. Look to Tony Fadell’s leadership style (heavily influenced by his mentor, Steve Jobs), which helped vault Nest into the home, and eventually into the ever-expanding Alphabet group. But that same hard-charging, "innovation and perfection at any cost" mentality can quickly devolve into a caustic environment that demoralizes workers, rewards treachery, and stifles creativity. At worse, it’s abuse.

Fadell is out as CEO, primarily the result of a clash of cultures between Nest and Google. But the CEO of Dropcam—which Nest acquired with its Alphabet cash—points to more than just differing opinions.

“There is a lot that I could say about my extreme differences on management style with the current leadership at Nest,” wrote Dropcam’s Greg Duffy during the corporate shake-up. “[They] seem to be fetishizing only the most superfluous and negative traits of their mentors.”

Ironically, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin took a different managerial tack before the search giant made its IPO. In a famous comment to the San Francisco Chronicle in 2001, Brin described the duo’s decision to hire tech veteran Eric Schmidt to run the company as “adult supervision.” The two realized that, among other things, the company would be better served with an experienced manager at the helm, allowing them to focus on big ideas while Schmidt handled the business of business.

And they've done it again, this time with the appointment of former Hyundai North America CEO and TrueCar CEO John Krafcik as the leader behind its self-driving car project.

Similarly, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark recently said in an interview with INC. that he understood early on that he would be a better contributor to the tech side of the company rather than the management side.

“I was able, to some extent, to divorce my ego from my CEO role,” Newmark said. “And I'd had a lot of lessons. I'd seen micromanagement be a big problem in the tech industry. I just saw lots of situations where people screwed up by interfering with people who could do the job.”

That ability to check one’s pride in the interest of satisfying employees, stakeholders, and ultimately, customers, is only part of a leader’s role at a company. It’s also about fostering a culture that balances accountability with empathy, delight with duty, and hubris with humility. The leaders we revere are the ones that understand the impact of their mission and come at it with a fundamental sense of responsibility. That leads to loyalty both from employees and consumers.

To say that greatness doesn’t exist in the Valley isn’t true, but in the past decade it’s also gotten increasingly scarce. It’s common to see founders thrust into a CEO position, only to watch them overwhelmed by the responsibilities, the scale, and the attention. They eventually fall into an “us versus them” mentality with underlings, allies, investors, and the press.

While this is nothing new in the world of business, in the culture of the Valley, putting the engineer first is often to the detriment to the overall goal. There’s a massive focus on technical skill and rockstar coders, leaving the soft sciences like human resources and communications as not just an afterthoughts, but as elements that they don’t understand and often secretly (or not so secretly) distain. Granted, it might be hard to fit in the Art of War while cramming for exams and getting your first startup off the ground from your dorm room. But great leaders have the curiosity and drive to look beyond the tangible and quantifiable to focus on the broader implications of their actions and duties.

So is it any wonder than when you put a brilliant Computer Science major in the C-suite, things go off the rails?

There's a fundamental difference between code and cars—a distinction that seems to be lost on most of the Valley. Hardware is hard, sure, but there's a difference between a phone and a ton-and-a-half potential lethal weapon. That distinction doesn't seem to make a difference to many in the automotive-disruptor realm, and in many cases, particularly with nascent autonomous technology, it's not just to the detriment of the company, but society as a whole.

People can argue that the only way to revolutionize the transportation industry is to strip it bare and start from first principles. That might be true, but just as often, it's used as an excuse to normalize bad behavior and let egos run wild.