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Having amassed an outrageous fortune (not in the Shakespearean sense) and founded some of the world’s most innovative companies, Elon Musk is often held up as a genius of technology, whose sharp mind and business acumen led directly to the pinnacle of the Forbes list with $245bn to his name.

Even after the Twitter-to-X journey over the past 18 months, the web is full of articles on his problem-solving and “first principles” techniques. So, I wonder which principle Musk was applying last week when he told the world’s advertisers to “go f*ck [themselves]”?

Speaking in a live interview with New York Times financial journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin at the annual DealBook Summit, Musk said the advertising boycott of X by a number of huge multinationals (including Disney, Apple, Paramount, Warner Bros Discovery, Lionsgate and Comcast) was an attempt to blackmail him. It could kill the platform, he warned. But he claimed he still didn’t want their money, doubling down on the expletive-laden, uhm, instruction, and singling out Disney CEO Bob Iger, who was also at the event.

“The whole world will know those advertisers killed the company, and we will document it in great detail,” he said. X CEO Linda Yaccarino followed this performance with a memo to staffers and a post on X, lauding his righteous stand.

Maybe it is that, but the timeline still looks like this: in April, Musk told the BBC that the advertisers were back. In July, he admitted ad revenue had fallen  50%. In October, Yaccarino was on a roadshow of corporate boardrooms, reassuring X’s financiers that she had revival plans. In November, Musk faced a backlash for allegedly anti-Semitic posts — one even while he was on a visit to Israel.

And now this interview, in which he rambled and misspoke. “Jonathan, the only reason I’m here is because you’re a friend,” said Musk. “I’m Andrew,” Sorkin replied. CNN reported that “a good portion of the room” walked out before the discussion officially wrapped up.

Edged out

If you’re a Musk admirer, you may say this current downward turn — I’d say spiral — is precipitated by his evidently split attention and the relentless scrutiny he receives these days. Either way, surely we can agree that this is not a shining moment of strategic business thinking?

Which brings me nicely around to why I harp on about Musk. He is not an example of the hubris that stalks the corridors of big tech, but its archetype. Where is the 10km Hyperloop tunnel we’d have by 2020? Why is Tesla being edged out by its old-school competitors? Are advertisers or leadership responsible if X kicks the bucket?

Last month I was having a wide-ranging chat with a local C-suiter and serial entrepreneur (who will remain nameless here). One of the topics we got into was how to evaluate some of the infamous faces of tech. If memory serves, I made a disparaging remark about former WeWork CEO Adam Neumann — something about his erratic behaviour and his stepping down in a state of disgrace in 2019. “Yes,” my interviewee countered, “but you can’t deny he was a genius.”

Of course Neumann has been called that before. As have Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Musk and other Big Men of Big Tech with their outsize reputations. That was when Neumann put himself on the map by turning WeWork from a start-up to a “real estate juggernaut” worth $47bn in less than a decade, as CNBC reported recently. Nine months later, that figure had shrunk to $45m.

There is no doubt he was an innovator, I said, but with hindsight can we really call Neumann a genius? “He changed the face of corporate real estate and mainstreamed the as-a-service model,” came the swift counter-jab. Through friendly debate we teased out that we had different working definitions of “genius”; I was talking intelligence, he was talking impact.

Wild hair

I love a robust but polite disagreement, one in which you play the ball, not the man. So the conversation moved on happily. But I’ve been worrying at the idea like over a sore tooth ever since. “Genius” is a word I dislike, a label often applied to anyone rich and influential enough, especially in tech. Largely, its application isn’t an evaluation but a free pass out of some fundamental “niceties” — like being accountable to a board, not falsifying your financials and test results, and considering the safety of your product before you foist it on society.

Convicted felon Sam Bankman-Fried — with his wild hair, T-shirts and crumpled shorts — was revered as a genius right up until his Ponzi-esque scheme collapsed. Korea’s crypto “genius” Do Kwon innovated in the realm of stablecoins and pegged crypto with his terraUSD and Luna tokens. But when it sold its large Bitcoin reserves in a time of stress the whole market wobbled and Terra Luna collapsed, wiping out billions. Elizabeth Holmes’ “genius” was going to revolutionise medical testing, if only actual biology and physics would bend to her narrative. When it didn’t, she lied to investors to get more money.

It is my belief that had these people not been revered as geniuses, exempt from normal standards, their wildest and most damaging actions would have been caught earlier and even prevented.

As Drew Magary writes — about Musk — in the SFGate this week, “Secretly, I’d prefer it if the richest men on Earth were special…” I think most people would agree. It feels more sensible if those on top got there by the force of their great minds and weren’t given a running start because they got bought out of their businesses at just the right moment (Musk), or if their fortune was self-made and not kick-started by a million-dollar wedding present (Neumann).

A great and novel idea should be celebrated, but tech could have better ideas, better outputs, if we aren’t distracted by the allure of “genius” tech leaders. And if you’re going to disagree in the comments, remember your polite niceties, please. Diehard “Muskateers” — like their idol — so often don’t.

• Thompson Davy, a freelance journalist, is an impactAFRICA fellow and WanaData member.

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