Biographer Walter Isaacson Dissects Why Elon Musk Is So Difficult

The biographer believes Musk's harsh management style is driven by a genuine urgency for humans to become multi-planetary.

Walter Isaacson and Elon Musk
Walter Isaacson (right) interviews Elon Musk onstage during “The State of Innovation” at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit in 2014, Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Vanity Fair

Elon Musk’s biographer Walter Isaacson blames the Tesla (TSLA) and SpaceX CEO’s volatile personality for a lot of things, but still believes Musk will be remembered as a pioneer who brought society to a new era of exploration.

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“There’s no single Elon Musk. He has many personalities,” Isaacson said in an interview with CBS Sunday Morning that aired yesterday (Sept. 10). After observing the billionaire entrepreneur for two years, Isaacson says Musk can “go from being very giddy and funny to being deeply in engineering mode, and then suddenly the dark cloud happens.”

Referring to Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 horror fiction, Isaacson added, “It’s almost like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

It has been well documented by journalists and people who work for Musk how difficult a boss he can sometimes be, especially by the standards of the industries he operates in, like automobiles and aerospace. During an interview with CBS correspondent David Pogue at SpaceX’s factory in Texas, Isaacson said, “When Musk and I would walk along this corridor and he would see people being a little lethargic or not enough people [were present], he would say, ‘Where’s everybody? Let’s get moving, this needs to be done by tonight.’ That would never happen at Boeing.”

“There are people who really try to avoid eye contact because he can be brutal, he can get really mad, he can unload on people,” Isaacson said.

The author said such a harsh management style is driven by a genuine urgency for humans to go to Mars and become multi-planetary, the core mission of SpaceX. He believes Musk’s adventurous spirit and lack of empathy are largely a result of his traumatic childhood memories, especially of his father, Errol Musk.

“It has left deep scars on him, the way his father treated him when he was bullied on the schoolyard, when his face was pounded into the concrete steps, and his father took the side of the person who beat him up instead of Elon,” Isaacson said. “He says to me, ‘Yeah, I don’t have as much empathy. I’m not like you. I don’t want the person in front of me just to love me. I got to get this mission done.”

Isaacson’s new book, Elon Musk, will arrive at bookstores nationwide on Sept. 12. He has been sharing snippets of the book on social media since August. Last week, Isaacson published an adapted excerpt in TIME magazine about Musk’s clash with other tech leaders over artificial intelligence. Musk commented on the article on X, formerly Twitter, “Not quite how I would tell the story, but very accurate for an observer who only saw part of the puzzle.”

When Pogue asked Isaacson whether he admires Musk after having written a book about him, Isaacson replied, “A biographer has to show the light and the dark strands, and you’ve got to be critical of the dark strands, you’ve got to be admiring the light strands. But then the toughest thing is to show how they intertwine.”

“He brought us to the era of electric vehicles when GM and Ford had given up. He said, ‘Yes, we can shoot astronauts into orbit’ when NASA had decommissioned the Space Shuttle,” Isaacson said of Musk’s legacy. “S0, 100 years from now, we’ll still be baffled in some ways about how dark he could be. But we’ll say, yeah he put his finger on the surface of history and the ripple came out.”

Biographer Walter Isaacson Dissects Why Elon Musk Is So Difficult