The Penalty of Leadership: From Cadillac To Tesla

Brands don't lead—leaders do.

People often ask why Elon Musk doesn’t pay a penalty for being such an insufferable jerk. The big question. As I enter my third month of Tesla ownership, I too have been struggling to reconcile my bottomless love for my Model 3 with my contempt for Elon’s broken promises, exaggerations and pettiness. If only genius and power were linked to good judgment and superior temperament, but that notion is contradicted by virtually all of human history. If you think the men and women in the big chairs are kind, decent and patient, you’ve been fooled by the kind of publicists Musk gnaws on like a honey badger does a cobra.

But then I get back into my Tesla, and I just don’t care.

I don’t care because I know I let myself get caught up in $TSLA debate rather than the Tesla debate. Investors care about $TSLA. Consumers? Tesla. Two markets. Two products. Is $TSLA a steaming pile? I’m not an investor, so I don’t care. Does Tesla make the most innovative cars on the planet?

The question answers itself. That’s leadership.

I stare at the clean lines of its dash — as close to a concept as has ever gone from sheet to street. I pinch, point and drag the map on the large central display — as fast as my iPhone, which is all that matters to me in the current age. Every time I get in my car, Musk’s wretched character evaporates. Every time I sit in traffic using Autopilot — flaws and all — I laugh at everyone agonizing over Tesla’s stock price. 

Even if Elon Musk were guilty of everything suggested by critics — and you can count me among them — he has delivered something legacy automakers have largely forgotten: The Dream, and not just the electric dream. Clean sheet design? Byah! Ground up infotainment? Byah! Smartphone UI? Fast navigation? Byahbyah! Great voice commands? Fast charging infrastructure? Direct sales? Wireless software updates?


Tesla’s dream isn’t a single spec. It’s innovation for innovations sake, by whatever means. You don’t have to love Tesla’s solutions. They don’t even have to work perfectly. Some of them may never work. That Tesla is even trying is the innovation, and a miracle for which we should be grateful. Hardly anyone else is. Almost every “innovation” from legacy car makers is the result of Tesla forcing their hands, and showing up years later with bits and pieces. How many years did they sit on seat belts? Airbags? Wireless updates? Google Maps integration? Smartphone integration?

Leadership sure isn’t on display in 2019 at BMW, where they charge a subscription fee to use Apple Carplay. How about Cadillac, who let Supercruise — still the only system that can compete with Tesla Autopilot — languish in one model for two years. Whatever leadership Cadillac might have claimed is now up in smoke.

That’s how you destroy a brand.

NOTE TO CAR MAKERS: Brand is what you talk about when leadership is in the past.

Brands don’t lead, leaders do, and there isn’t a lot of leadership on the committees running most legacy car makers. Hilariously, $TSLA shorts and OEM publicists would have us believe the next “Tesla Killer” will deliver because a dozen committees met and everyone ticked their boxes. None of them understand what they’re up against. You can’t defeat a dream with numbers, or even quality. You only beat a dream with another, better dream. You can’t beat Tesla next year by delivering a car inferior to what Fremont was manufacturing in 2014. You’ve got to go to market with everything Tesla can, and something they can’t. It might be two or more uniquely superlative features, or a new set of policies, or a fantastic new ecosystem, any which might shine like a beacon to the world, indicating that this brand is different, and that every subsequent model will further raise the bar.

That’s leadership, and — despite every legitimate criticism thrown at Elon Musk — Tesla has owned it since the 2012 Model S launch.

There was a time when traditional manufacturers truly grasped leadership, but one has to go back 100 years to find it in as pure a form as Tesla currently embodies. Ironically, it comes from a brand few associate with leadership today: Cadillac.

Back in 1915, when Cadillac’s premium status was under threat, they responded with the best automotive ad of all time, one in which Cadillac is never named, nor is a single feature, spec or metric. In order to understand the continued survival of Tesla and Musk, this should be read in its entirety.

The Greatest Car Ad of all time., Alex Roy

“In every field of human endeavor, he that is first must perpetually live in the white light of publicity. Whether the leadership be vested in a man or in a manufactured product, emulation and envy are ever at work. In art, in literature, in music, in industry, the reward and the punishment are always the same. The reward is widespread recognition; the punishment, fierce denial and detraction. When a man’s work becomes a standard for the whole world, it also becomes a target for the shafts of the envious few. If his work be mediocre, he will be left severely alone – if he achieves a masterpiece, it will set a million tongues a -wagging. Jealousy does not protrude its forked tongue at the artist who produces a commonplace painting. Whatsoever you write, or paint, or play, or sing, or build, no one will strive to surpass or to slander you unless your work be stamped with the seal of genius. Long, long after a great work or a good work has been done, those who are disappointed or envious, continue to cry out that it cannot be done. Spiteful little voices in the domain of art were raised against our own Whistler as a mountebank, long after the big would had acclaimed him its greatest artistic genius. Multitudes flocked to Bayreuth to worship at the musical shrine of Wagner, while the little group of those whom he had dethroned and displaced argued angrily that he was no musician at all. The little world continued to protest that Fulton could never build a steamboat, while the big world flocked to the river banks to see his boat steam by. The leader is assailed because he is a leader, and the effort to equal him is merely added proof of that leadership. Failing to equal or to excel, the follower seeks to depreciate and to destroy – but only confirms once more the superiority of that which he strives to supplant. There is nothing new in this. It is as old as the world and as old as human passions – envy, fear, greed, ambition, and the desire to surpass. And it all avails nothing. If the leader truly leads, he remains – the leader. Master-poet, master-painter, master-workman, each in his turn is assailed, and each holds his laurels through the ages. That which is good or great makes itself known, no matter how loud the clamor of denial. That which deserves to live—lives.”

Tesla could put out such a statement, but wouldn’t. Musk isn’t one for literary flourish, and times have changed, but every time Musk tweets, he’s saying the same thing Cadillac did 104 years ago. Screw you. Bring it. Keep talking about me, bitches. All of Musk’s bulls**t, exaggerations and pettiness don’t matter because once you get in a Tesla, there really is nothing else like it. Mine isn’t perfect, and I don’t care. I want what it does, and don’t care about what it doesn’t. I want to live the dream. I want to drive the future. If someone else offered it today, I’d buy that.

But no one does. At least not yet. (Porsche, please nail this. I’ve got my eye on you, Rivian.)

Until then, Musk will be forgiven almost anything he does, for better, or for worse. And like a honeybadger, he certainly don’t give s**t. Elon is the leader we deserve, and the one the industry needed. And boy, is Elon paying its penalty every day. Cadillac and everyone else should be so lucky as to pay it, but they forgot about the leadership part, and no volume of “storytelling” and consulting fees can get it back.

P.S. If you believe Tesla “Full Self-Driving” — and by that I mean no one in the driver’s seat and Tesla assumes liability — will arrive in 2020, you’re confused, or a sucker, or both.

Alex Roy has no position in $TSLA, and doesn’t give a s**t if you do. He is also Director of Special Operations at Argo.AI, founder of the Human Driving Association, editor-at-large at The Drive, host of The Autonocast, co-host of /DRIVE on NBC Sports, author of The Driver, and Producer of APEX: The Secret Race Across America. He has set numerous endurance driving records, including the infamous Cannonball Run record, and believes in mobility as a fundamental human right. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.