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Elon Musk, John Eliot Gardiner, and the “Great Man” Problem
What will it take to get rid of the idea that brilliance and bad behaviour need each other?
The book everyone’s been talking about this week is Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Elon Musk. For many, many reasons Musk isn’t the kind of biographical subject I’d usually gravitate towards. Neither of the things I write about — music and women’s history — are really Musk’s forte. But these do make me interested in how other biographers approach the relationship between creativity, innovation, and power. Writing about the world’s richest man with a documented reputation for “bad behaviour”, it would be difficult to write about Musk without touching on power, personality, and creativity. So I got myself a copy, and dug in.
The book has been billed by the publisher as an ‘astonishingly intimate’ story, with Isaacson having been granted extended access to the tech billionaire. He shadowed him for two years, saw confidential business documents, spoke to his friends, colleagues and family — including Musk’s famously recalcitrant father. And Musk had, apparently, already agreed that Isaacson should have the freedom to write whatever he liked. This all reads like an extraordinary opportunity to research and write a truly important, critical, analytical biography of a man about whom, as Jill Lepore put it in the New Yorker, ‘a case could be made that he wields more power than any other person on the planet who isn’t in charge of a nuclear arsenal.’
But my alarm bells started ringing from the introduction, where Isaacson poses his central question: ‘Could he [Musk] have been more chill and still be the one launching us toward Mars and an electric-vehicle future?’ Is this really the most important question that needs to be asked about Elon Musk? It smacks of an impending troubled genius narrative and sure enough, Isaacson paints Musk as a man whose ‘demons are also his inspirational angels’, who is shaped by a combative relationship with his father, and is inclined towards being, in Isaacson’s words, ‘an asshole’. (Examples include Musk getting into physical ‘rolling-on-the-office-floor fights’ with his brother in the Zip2 office, telling colleagues to fix ‘their fucking stupid code’, or informing his wife on their wedding day that he is ‘the alpha in this relationship’.) The story told is a repetitive one, at least until Twitter — Musk has an idea, bullies people or fires them until he gets his way, and is sometimes wrong but more often than not right. Isaacson isn’t afraid to detail Musk’s aggressive interactions so he’s hardly portraying him as a saint, but he nonetheless concludes in his final pages:
Do the audaciousness and hubris that drive him to attempt epic feats excuse his bad behaviour, his callousness, his recklessness? The times he’s an asshole? The answer is no, of course not. One can admire a person’s good traits and decry the bad ones. But it’s also important to understand how the strands are woven together, sometimes tightly. […] Sometimes great innovators are risk-seeking man-children who resist potty training. They can be reckless, cringeworthy, sometimes even toxic. They can also be crazy. Crazy enough to think they can change the world.
There is so much to unpack here, not least the toddler analogy. But for now I want to rest on the connection Isaacson is making between brilliance and bad behaviour. ‘Would a restrained Musk’, Isaacson asks us, ‘accomplish as much as a Musk unbound?’ The answer, he suggests, is no. It’s a centuries-old story — that genius goes hand in hand with abuse of power. And this brings me back to music, because this kind of argument is extremely similar to those trotted out last month about conductor John Eliot Gardiner. The levels of power involved with Musk and Gardiner are obviously wildly, wildly different. One is the richest man in the world, the other is conductor who also farms a bit (or a Dorset farmer who also conducts, depending on who you ask). But they both work in hierarchically structured industries where there are significant power disparities between the most senior and most junior employees. Both operate in a world where “genius” is revered — and where there is a resilient and persistent myth that bullying is the flip-side of brilliance.
For a brief recap, in August Gardiner was accused of 'punching and slapping a soloist for allegedly entering the stage incorrectly at the Berlioz festival in France.' Unlike many such cases, there seems to have been little disagreement over whether the alleged event actually happened. Gardiner released a statement via his spokesperson saying ‘I make no excuses for my behaviour and have apologised personally to Will Thomas’ (the soloist in question). He withdrew from his scheduled performances at the Proms and all future 2023 engagements while he gets 'specialist help'.
The newspaper coverage of this was shocking. Although The Times labelled Gardiner a ‘dinosaur’, the verdict was still that Gardiner came from a world in which ‘conductors who behaved like dictators’ were ‘expected’, and that whatever else Gardiner has done he ‘can still galvanise a Bach motet like nobody else on the planet’. ‘I hope Gardiner doesn’t chuck in the towel’, the article continues. ‘Young conductors today tend to be well-schooled, well-mannered technocrats, good at their jobs but rarely making outrageous demands.’ There it is, the binary suggesting brilliance is impossible without bad behaviour.
Most direct of all was in The Spectator. ‘Cut conductors down to size’, the article read; ‘but understand that if you want conductors to become the faceless time-beaters of the 18th and early 19th centuries, you will inevitably remove much of the charismatic authority that has given classical music its pre-eminence in culture and society.’ It complains about ‘routine concerts by jobbing conductors who had their careers solely because they were good at ingratiating themselves with the players — often by letting them slack off’ (we are left wondering who such straw-man conductors might be, because they’re left unnamed). Again — conductors who aren’t abusive are anodyne. Brilliance demands ‘a beast’.
The trope of the genius whose immoral behaviour begets their great deeds is centuries old and by this point, long out of date. Its many harms have been pointed to time and time again. It is gendered, and as Ryan Skinnell writes, it has been ‘used to justify racist, patriarchal, and imperial policies because the theory insinuated, and sometimes stated directly, that universal geniuses only came from European stock.' This narrative gives a plausible cover, excuse, and even incentive for those in power to treat others with contempt. By upholding the brilliant-bully myth, we may well be creating, or at the very least giving an implicit green-light to, abusive behaviour. Why, then, are we still perpetuating this story?
It is true that being an innovator and striving for excellence may mean making some unpopular decisions. Directions innovators want to take may at first seem peculiar or counterintuitive to others, and it requires a certain amount of determination to push through new ideas. What matters, though, is the way that these ideas or decisions are implemented. Unpopular decisions, such as firing employees, can be delivered with compassion. And data compiled by the leadership consultancy firm Zenger Folkman shows that among business leaders, ‘the ability to inspire creates the highest level of employee engagement and commitment’ — not forcing people into adopting new ideas because they have little choice or are too scared to act differently.
It should only take a brief glance at counter-examples to demonstrate that it is a complete fiction that innovation requires abusive or bullying behaviour. Simon Rattle and Marin Alsop, for example, are routinely named as some of the best conductors working today, and are surely as innovative as Gardiner ever was. As far as I know, neither has a documented pattern of abusive behaviour.
Continuing to believe in the brilliant bully stops us from building the cultures and systems that will lead to kinder work environments. If it is true that an ‘unbound’ Musk can achieve so much more than a ‘restrained’ Musk, what does that tell us about the way that business structures need to change so that a ‘restrained’ person is more likely to succeed? And if ‘you cannot stop bastards from being extremely talented’, what structures need to be put in place to both disincentivise leaders from behaving aggressively in the first place, and protect employees if and when they do? Surely these are the more important questions that biographers and critics need to illuminate.
It’s not enough to simply point to bad behaviour, label perpetrators “assholes”, and then adopt a boys-will-be-boys attitude — because it is disproportionately men who are given this kind of latitude around their behaviour, despite what Tár would have us believe. If we must tell stories about bullies, we need biographical models that don’t condone or glorify their bad behaviour.
One strategy might be to foreground the voices and perspectives of those who are most impacted by the behaviour of these so-called “great men”, who are missing from both Isaacson’s biography and the Gardiner coverage. When the Gardiner news broke my social media feed was a story of two halves. While some critics were running with the line that genius goes hand-in-hand with abuse and may even be worth it, on Twitter/X/whatever we’re calling it, musicians were posting about their experiences with abusive behaviour and how it had impacted on them, decrying the idea that bad behaviour gets better results. Rarely have I felt like there was such a wide and significant divide between critics and musicians — the latter being the group who have to deal most directly with the consequences of the brilliant-bully narrative.
Similarly, in Isaacson’s biography, when Musk cut corners in a push for productivity levels at Tesla that others thought unreasonable, Isaacson gives just one sentence to the consequences: ‘Tesla’s injury rate was 30 percent higher than the rest of the industry.’ The names of injured Tesla employees are noticeably absent from Isaacson’s list of interviewees, who are mostly CEOs, co-founders, managing directors, directors, and/or family. Isaacson only really gets into the impact of Musk’s 'callous and impulsive’ behaviour insofar as it affects the individuals around him. What he does not interrogate, as Constance Grady writes for Vox, are ‘times when Musk did something mavericky and counterintuitive and, because of his power and wealth and platform and reach, it ended up hurting a whole lot of people’ — particularly people who have substantially less power and influence than Musk himself. Nor does he really probe the claim, supposedly circulated by ex-employees, ‘that Musk rarely knew as much as he claimed and that his interventions were usually unhelpful or outright problematic’, which might counter the tale Isaacson tells us about Musk so often being correct. What kind of story would have emerged had the interviewing net been thrown wider?
Another approach could be to put these individuals in a broader context. This might include making comparisons with those who take a less combative approach to leadership. Gardiner was likened to others who ‘revelled in their reputations for taking no prisoners in rehearsal’ such as Karajan and Solti. But what about conductors who are capable of getting incredible results with compassion and care? Why aren’t they the comparison points?
Contextualising might also mean analysing the social structures that normalise aggression, showing how and why these kinds of behaviour patterns are formed. Isaacson talks about apartheid South Africa as ‘a violent place’ for Musk to grow up and talks about the physical violence he experienced at school and wilderness camp, but then draws the rest of Musk’s childhood as a domestic drama set apart from politics and outside influence. The ‘scars’ of school, he says, ‘were minor compared to the emotional ones inflicted by his father.’ Bafflingly, Isaacson has little more to say about how growing up in a racially segregated country might foster a sense of entitlement or superiority, or otherwise influence somebody’s outlook.
The way we write about powerful individuals matters. Words create possible futures, mould the way we understand the past, teach us how to interact with others. They do nothing less than shape the way we experience the world. As I’ve been writing this post, the Russell Brand story has been unfolding. Amidst the extensive commentary on Brand’s behaviour, there was a reflective article from Marina Hyde in the Guardian. She talks about what she got wrong during “Sachsgate”, when Brand and Jonathan Ross left messages on Andrew Sachs’ answerphone about Brand’s relationship with Georgina Baillie, Sachs’ granddaughter:
What is completely bizarre, with the benefit of 2023 hindsight, is how the Sachsgate story was framed… And with my 2023 head on, rather sickening alarm bells began to ring, because I knew — I knew — that I wouldn’t have centred anything I wrote about it on Georgina Baillie. I had this shaming suspicion I had treated it as a sort of media story — and so it proved. … I’m just one of the many people who got many different things wrong about how that story should have been covered and framed. If we have learned anything … then it is vital we all treat these newly uncovered stories better.
Writers may not be able to change everything, but we might be able to change more than we think. It is possible for writers, and biographers especially, to hold ‘man-children’ to account, and change the way horrendous behaviour is framed.
If you want to read other takes on Isaacson’s biography, it’s been reviewed (among other places) in the Financial Times, Guardian, Observer, Vox, New Yorker, and New York Times. It’s also discussed on the New York Review of Books podcast, which I recommended last week.
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