Elon Musk’s Lessons From Hell: Five Commandments for Business - Kanebridge News
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Elon Musk’s Lessons From Hell: Five Commandments for Business

New book by biographer Walter Isaacson explores the billionaire’s leadership style and ‘demon mode’

Wed, Sep 13, 2023 8:54amGrey Clock 4 min

Simply put: Elon Musk can be a real jerk.

And that has probably helped and hurt him in business, according to a new biography by Walter Isaacson.

In “Elon Musk,” out Tuesday, Isaacson puts forth the idea of “demon mode” to explain the temperamental impulses behind some of the tycoon’s successes—and setbacks. But it isn’t just demon mode that has fuelled his rise. Isaacson details other teachable ways the billionaire’s methods have helped make him the world’s richest man.

Both sides of Musk are sure to become part of B-school lore for a new generation of would-be entrepreneurs and business managers picking and choosing which traits and tactics to emulate.

Isaacson had previously made the concept of the “reality distortion field” popular with his bestselling 2011 book about Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and his ability to bend perception to motivate others.

Demon mode was on display in 2018 as Musk struggled to ramp up production of Tesla’s Model 3 sedan, which nearly destroyed the electric-car company and which the CEO dubbed production hell.

That experience through hell, the book says, also helped Musk shape five commandments for how he wants problems solved by his workers across his companies, from rocket maker SpaceX to social-media platform X, formerly Twitter.

Musk, in the book, calls the framework for problem solving “the algorithm.” In short, Musk urges his employees to:

  • Question every requirement
  • Delete any part or process you can
  • Simplify and optimise
  • Accelerate cycle time
  • Automate

“His executives sometimes move their lips and mouth the words, like they would chant the liturgy along with their priest,” Isaacson wrote of Musk’s mantra.

In the book, Musk acknowledges he talks about the approach often. “I became a broken record on the algorithm,” Musk is quoted as saying. “But I think it’s helpful to say it to an annoying degree.”

The approach builds off a long-held method for problem solving touted by Musk called first principles, a reasoning that breaks tasks into their very basics without simply reverting to what has been done before.

“The algorithm is a five-step process for not only making good products and designing good products, but manufacturing them,” Isaacson said in an interview Monday.

“It begins with first principles. He says, question every requirement, and, by first principles he means, look down at the physics. If somebody says, no, we can’t build it at this price, he says, tell me how much the materials cost. Tell me exactly what’s involved here and then tell me you can or can’t do it.”

There are other lessons in the book that Musk has long practiced, such as never asking an employee to do something you aren’t willing to do (hence his sleeping on factory floors), hiring employees based on their attitude, and saying “it’s OK to be wrong. Just don’t be confident and wrong.”

Telling Musk bad news, however, has been seen by some employees as dangerous to one’s career.

“One of his problems is people sometimes are afraid to tell him the bad news,” Isaacson said. “Those who succeed around Musk are those who figure out you got to give him the bad news even if it’s going to result in some unpleasant scenes.”

Their fear is often rooted in demon mode.

Claire Boucher, known as the musician Grimes and the mother of three of Musk’s children, coined the term in an interview with Isaacson.

“Demon mode is when he goes dark and retreats inside the storm in his brain,” Boucher said in the book. “Demon mode,” she added, “causes a lot of chaos but it also gets s— done.”

And Musk has gotten a lot done, helping usher in the electric-car era as Tesla chief executive and igniting the commercial space race with SpaceX, which he founded. His messy stewardship of X, however, is testing public perception of his business genius.

Isaacson, who shadowed Musk for two years in reporting the book, saw demon mode in person several times along with other personalities that he described as ranging from silly to charming. He suggests the roots of the dark clouds come from the 52-year-old’s childhood in South Africa.

“It’s almost like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde where a cloud comes over and he gets into a trance and he can just be tough in a cold way,” Isaacson said. “He never gets really angry, never gets that physical, but coldly brutal to people and he almost doesn’t remember afterwards what he’s done. Sometimes I’ll say, why did you say that to that person? And he’ll look at me blankly as if he didn’t quite remember what happened while he was in demon mode.”

In one instance, Isaacson described seeing demon mode emerge when Musk saw SpaceX’s launchpad in South Texas empty late one evening.

“He orders a hundred people to come in from different parts of SpaceX from Florida, California so they can all work for 24 hours a day getting this thing done even though there was no need to,” Isaacson said.

Such surges seem to play in tandem to Musk’s need for drama.

“He is a drama magnet,” Musk’s younger brother, Kimbal, said in the book. “That’s his compulsion, the theme of his life.”

Isaacson cautions that readers shouldn’t come away thinking they can be just like Musk and automatically succeed. Rather, he said, readers should see both how leaders such as Musk and the late Jobs were effective and also take away cautionary tales.

“You don’t have to be this mean,” he said.

Still, throughout his book, Isaacson chases the question of whether Musk could be successful any other way.

“I try to show how that’s one of the strands in a fabric and as Shakespeare said, we’re molded out of our faults,” Isaacson said. “If we pull that strand out, you might not get the whole cloth of Elon Musk.”


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These stocks are getting hit for a reason. Instead, focus on stocks that show ‘relative strength.’ Here’s how.

Wed, Jun 12, 2024 4 min

A lot of investors get stock-picking wrong before they even get started: Instead of targeting the top-performing stocks in the market, they focus on the laggards—widely known companies that look as if they are on sale after a period of stock-price weakness.

But these weak performers usually are going down for good reasons, such as for deteriorating sales and earnings, market-share losses or mutual-fund managers who are unwinding positions.

Decades of Investor’s Business Daily research shows these aren’t the stocks that tend to become stock-market leaders. The stocks that reward investors with handsome gains for months or years are more often  already  the strongest price performers, usually because of outstanding earnings and sales growth and increasing fund ownership.

Of course, many investors already chase performance and pour money into winning stocks. So how can a discerning investor find the winning stocks that have more room to run?

Enter “relative strength”—the notion that strength begets more strength. Relative strength measures stocks’ recent performance relative to the overall market. Investing in stocks with high relative strength means going with the winners, rather than picking stocks in hopes of a rebound. Why bet on a last-place team when you can wager on the leader?

One of the easiest ways to identify the strongest price performers is with IBD’s Relative Strength Rating. Ranked on a scale of 1-99, a stock with an RS rating of 99 has outperformed 99% of all stocks based on 12-month price performance.

How to use the metric

To capitalise on relative strength, an investor’s search should be focused on stocks with RS ratings of at least 80.

But beware: While the goal is to buy stocks that are performing better than the overall market, stocks with the highest RS ratings aren’t  always  the best to buy. No doubt, some stocks extend rallies for years. But others will be too far into their price run-up and ready to start a longer-term price decline.

Thus, there is a limit to chasing performance. To avoid this pitfall, investors should focus on stocks that have strong relative strength but have seen a moderate price decline and are just coming out of weeks or months of trading within a limited range. This range will vary by stock, but IBD research shows that most good trading patterns can show declines of up to one-third.

Here, a relative strength line on a chart may be helpful for confirming an RS rating’s buy signal. Offered on some stock-charting tools, including IBD’s, the line is a way to visualise relative strength by comparing a stock’s price performance relative to the movement of the S&P 500 or other benchmark.

When the line is sloping upward, it means the stock is outperforming the benchmark. When it is sloping downward, the stock is lagging behind the benchmark. One reason the RS line is helpful is that the line can rise even when a stock price is falling, meaning its value is falling at a slower pace than the benchmark.

A case study

The value of relative strength could be seen in Google parent Alphabet in January 2020, when its RS rating was 89 before it started a 10-month run when the stock rose 64%. Meta Platforms ’ RS rating was 96 before the Facebook parent hit new highs in March 2023 and ran up 65% in four months. Abercrombie & Fitch , one of 2023’s best-performing stocks, had a 94 rating before it soared 342% in nine months starting in June 2023.

Those stocks weren’t flukes. In a study of the biggest stock-market winners from the early 1950s through 2008, the average RS rating of the best performers before they began their major price runs was 87.

To see relative strength in action, consider Nvidia . The chip stock was an established leader, having shot up 365% from its October 2022 low to its high of $504.48 in late August 2023.

But then it spent the next four months rangebound—giving up some ground, then gaining some back. Through this period, shares held between $392.30 and the August peak, declining no more than 22% from top to bottom.

On Jan. 8, Nvidia broke out of its trading range to new highs. The previous session, Nvidia’s RS rating was 97. And that week, the stock’s relative strength line hit new highs. The catalyst: Investors cheered the company’s update on its latest advancements in artificial intelligence.

Nvidia then rose 16% on Feb. 22 after the company said earnings for the January-ended quarter soared 486% year over year to $5.16 a share. Revenue more than tripled to $22.1 billion. It also significantly raised its earnings and revenue guidance for the quarter that was to end in April. In all, Nvidia climbed 89% from Jan. 5 to its March 7 close.

And the stock has continued to run up, surging past $1,000 a share in late May after the company exceeded that guidance for the April-ended quarter and delivered record revenue of $26 billion and record net profit of $14.88 billion.

Ken Shreve  is a senior markets writer at Investor’s Business Daily. Follow him on X  @IBD_KShreve  for more stock-market analysis and insights, or contact him at  ken.shreve@investors.com .