Elon Musk and the Evolution of the CEO

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Cyborgs, the Singularity, the end of the universe, and everything in between—Elon Musk’s rambling, two-and-a-half-hour interview with comedian Joe Rogan on The Rogan Experience left no stone unturned, eased along by a few glasses of whiskey and a few drags of pot.

Unsurprisingly, this interview put Musk under fire, and to make the situation even more dramatic, two of Tesla’s top executives left the company and the stock price tumbled by six percent, as reported by NPR. Needless to say, the public reaction wasn’t a positive one.

But intentionally or not, Musk has the right idea - despite his poor execution.

By no means am I condoning recreational marijuana use, or saying that Musk is setting a good example. Rather, what I am encouraging is for CEOs to become more public in their capacity as influencers and leaders, and Musk is clearly no stranger to public attention.

In case you haven’t noticed, the world has changed in the past 40 years: the economy has become more service based, internet and social media have closed geographic and cultural boundaries, and millennials are gradually overtaking Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. As our society changes, so too do the companies we support; after all, what kind of business wouldn’t want to keep pace with their consumer base?

Successful companies are adaptive ones; they are always reframing their brands through the values of their intended audience, and no one embodies that brand better than the CEO. Take Apple for example: sure, part of Apple’s success was the aesthetic and novel design of their products, but equally important was Steve Jobs’ charisma and image as a brilliant visionary who championed creativity and innovation, someone that consumers felt was inspirational and — more importantly — relatable.

Now, is smoking marijuana and rambling on a podcast inspirational? Probably not. Is Musk trying to appeal solely to young stoners? Also no. But what Musk has inadvertently shown us is his humanity. At the end of the day, he enjoys a stiff drink and a random conversation just as much as the next person. That may seem trivial, but for someone as rarified as Musk, it’s significant. If consumers can identify with a CEO, then it’s a lot easier to identify with their brand, and that means greater sales and profits for the company.

Interviews aren’t the only platform for CEOs to publicize themselves. Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook are all excellent ways to connect with the masses, and it’s evident that public figures are leveraging the power of social media to their benefit. Despite the risks of being embroiled in controversies or scandals that can threaten public relations, it’s imperative now, more than ever, to maintain a positive, popular image that strikes a chord with potential buyers. CEOs who haven’t mastered this either fail to curry favor with their audiences or, worse yet, themselves become memes (looking at you, Zuckerberg).

Even if increased publicity doesn’t benefit the company, it still serves the public interest by holding these individuals accountable for their actions. CEO outreach, in conjunction with news coverage, usually paints an accurate picture of the trajectory and the status of a business venture. This is especially important when you consider the fact that a lot of these companies — Tesla, Facebook, Apple — trade stocks that people have invested their hard-earned money in. These literal stakeholders depend on the efficient management of a company to turn a profit, and so transparency is an absolute necessity.

So, as eccentric and controversial as Musk may be, his recent stunt is emblematic of the digital age, where constant communication and public appearances by executives is normal and even expected. Gone are the days when corporate leaders were nothing more than obscure names and faces on company websites. CEOs are becoming increasingly vocal, strengthening their presence in our daily lives and acting, in part, as the conduits of our consumer culture. If that worries you, it shouldn’t; it’s only natural, and it shows that now, more than ever, our values are being observed and considered. With this increasing symbiosis between company leadership and its respective consumer base, businesses are getting better at delivering the services and products we want.

In the end, the customer is king. Just as they should be.