Q: I am considering buying a Tesla even though I read enough to know Elon Musk is worrisome. Can I still buy it? It’s the best-in-class green car and a good choice vis-à-vis climate change. Or should I avoid giving Elon the fruits of my labor?
—Green Yet Blue
Not that long ago, I was in a similar situation. Having returned from living abroad, it took something like three minutes in suburbia to realize we “needed” a second car. As I reconnected with friends and colleagues I hadn’t seen in two years, we would inevitably discuss this as they picked me up or dropped me off at train stations and such. That’s how I saw how many of my folks had a Tesla. The design and “greenness” were an appealing one-two punch.
But something made me pause in my own purchase decision. (It wasn’t just the price tag, which can easily hit ~$80K depending on the model, plus home charger installation.) It’s that same something that is the impetus for your question.
Before we talk about him, let’s talk about what we’re actually talking about:
What is the flywheel effect of a decision like this?
Innovation like green tech requires folks to do one new thing and then another, so that the small choices, behaviors, and purchases add up, until the market default becomes greener everything.
This holds true for leadership and culture, too. People make seemingly small choices, enable behaviors. This includes buying that leader's products so that their prominence and influence grow, is emulated, and after a while, is also the default everything.
So, where you put your dollar down says this is what you value. But it’s also how you enable other people to add their value, maybe even advance their values in the world.
WHAT ONE VALUES
Back to Elon.
I was in the audience when Chris Anderson interviewed Elon during a 40-minute TEDtalk, and they talked of things like digging tunnels under L.A. I was living in Paris at the time, where they had and used tunnels, but not for cars; no, imagine this: for trains. So, tunnels? Not that new. They are a social infrastructure that should reduce the need for cars. So, as I listened to this “visionary” idea as Chris spoke of it, I was like daaaammmm, that Elon has GAME. Forty full minutes, when an average TEDtalk is sub-18 minutes, to run videos of gorgeous Teslas in motion.
Elon? Clearly gifted at the spin.
But he’s also many other things. Problematic things.
Recently, The Atlantic reported how Musk downplayed the dangers of the Coronavirus, lying when he offered predictions that it wouldn’t be harmful, and again when he falsely stated that children are “essentially immune” to COVID-19.
Before this, he was an “all in” supporter of our Birther-in-Chief, which one can argue enabled White Supremacy, or at least White Nationalism, to take over the White House.
While he sells the story of being the genius behind Tesla, the actual story is he was the money man who screwed over the innovative founders, then rewrote history in his favor.
Wired has reported on his companies’ problematic working conditions. According to Forbes, Tesla was the subject of 24 health and safety investigations between 2014 and 2018, resulting in almost a quarter of a million dollars of fines for 54 violations — a much higher level than any other U.S. carmaker.
He argues that the government shouldn’t intervene in “his business,” but he has asked for and gotten an estimated $5 billion in subsidies, as reported by L.A. Times. Back in 2009, he got a nearly half-billion-dollar loan from the Department of Energy just to keep Tesla afloat in the wake of the financial crash.
Finally, instead of advocating for his crew to be able to buy the gorgeous Teslas they help make, as Ford’s founder famously did, Elon illegally blocks their organizing efforts.
I found ALL of that by simply* searching “elon musk problematic.”
So Elon has shown us who and what he values. And you? Does this reflect your values?
WHAT THIS HAS TO DO WITH US
I dunno about you, but I’m driven to tears at who this leader is.
By giving him a pass, it spreads. By putting our dollars on that table, we are signaling, encouraging, even celebrating his kind of leadership. In virtual boardrooms that you and I will never be in, and in Zoom sessions between well-meaning folks, he will be used as a good example of what they could do, maybe even what they should do because he is so successful.
And that’s how a flywheel goes faster in one direction.
The next leader says, well if asshat behavior is okay for Elon or whoever, it’s okay for me, too. And they become a winner-takes-all, wanting-to-feel-superior, alpha-style-oppressive leader who harms. And that’s how, soon enough, that leadership behavior shows up where you work, and where your friends work, and now we all work in ick.
This column’s work is predicated on the fact that we all want and deserve better. We deserve leaders that enable each of us to see and be seen for what we distinctly offer. So that we can each contribute the value only one has. To do that, we have to stall this flywheel of ick.
A NON-BINARY QUESTION
Now, this wasn’t the question you started with. You asked whether you should choose the killer product and ignore the leader. Or should the facts re: asshat leader cause you to dismiss Tesla as an option?
The binary nature of your question reminds me of the essay we just shared, on why we still don’t have what we’re looking for.
So, what’s a fuller question? How do you get green transport? How do you invest in green tech? How do you choose a company whose values you believe in? Maybe all three? And so maybe that leads us to be more creative in how we answer that, perhaps generating a list like this:
Get an e-bike for in-city commutes and still show-up non-sweaty.
Get a car only as needed for longer distances (Zipcar, taxis, or otherwise) or to haul stuff
Ask a friend to borrow a car a few times a month, and trade for this. (i.e., the gift economy.)
By a hybrid car but then fund a reforestation project.
Buy a regular car AND carbon offsets.
Change your retirement funds according to your values.
When I looked at that cumulative $80,000 price tag, and over at Elon, I thought... there has gotta be another set of choices. (And it helped, to be honest, that my husband rolled his eyes at that price tag.)
So, if it helps, let me share how I thought of it. I found a website that did a side-by-side net comparison of “greenness” to see how much fossil fuel, for example, it takes to create a “green” battery. I came to learn that I could have the same eco-footprint as electric, if I chose a car with a much smaller engine size. Hence my tiny car. (I was inspired to build a spreadsheet using a talk my friend Catherine Mohr did ages ago about how building a “green” home involves looking at a lot of tradeoffs.) I ended up spending ~ $40K on the car. I also changed my retirement investment funds to 100% divest from fossil fuels and shifted to a fund that optimizes for certain leadership criteria.
WHY DO WE LET POWERFUL PEOPLE ACT BADLY?
I’m so glad you asked this question.
Most don’t. Most people, for example, Chris Anderson of TED, don’t seem to even spot that Elon and leaders like him are deeply problematic. That’s because of how power works. Because if someone is already powerful, they get handed the microphone, even if that microphone will be used to repeat lies. If someone has a particular title in an organization, we think someone else (the board, the government leaders who are funding those subsidies, someone) must know something we don’t, so we grant that leader authority, too. We defer to those who are already in power, instead of looking at the ideas a person has.
(As you might remember, I did a talk on how power powers ideas.)
Once a person has power, as Stanford Professor Jeff Pfeffer has taught, how they got it will be mostly forgiven, forgotten, or both. “Our capacity for moral rationalization is almost unbounded,” he recently wrote.
WE GET WHAT WE CHOOSE (TO ADVANCE)
You want a “good” car, but let’s also vote for good leadership. Let’s do both.
When Paul and I were recently thinking about our value proposition for this column, we talked about naming our ambition for it. With each question, we explore how we slow the flywheel of work cultures that harm, and how we activate and advance the flywheel that enables Onlyness to thrive. So that work sucks less. But also, so we can be more.
So that we can be that change we wish to see.
To choose to be led by a liar is to ask to be told lies. To be led by someone who puts themselves first frays at our social fabric and denies how much we belong to one another. To fund a bully who violates workplace regulations is to underwrite that abuse.
How do we get to have a life at work that we want and deserve? It’s to value our own values. Then, to direct our attention, dollars, and effort towards what we want to grow.
The way we spend the fruits of our labor is one way we extend our values into the world. The choice is yours.
*About those Elon claims: In actuality, I took over half a day to confirm the reports. I also paid $59 to The Atlantic so I could read all their articles about him. I took a deep look at who the writers and editors were, and what else they report on. I read the articles all the way through to see that each was independently researched and not just reblogging old stories. I also did a scholar search to find additional papers and books, and then a keyword search within those documents to see if these facts were researched/referenced there. I looked to see if a single person was repeatedly quoted, to ensure there was no vendetta at play. I invested my time in these extra steps to be thorough for you. If I had been searching just for myself, that first page of results would have been damning enough.