Elon Musk’s Dark Streak Can Scare Staffers, His Biographer Says

Walter Isaacson saw Musk operate with a “real lack of empathy” while working on the bio slated for September release

Elon Musk
Elon Musk (Getty Images)

Elon Musk has a “maniacal sense of urgency” that can frighten his workers that includes going into “demon mode” at times, according to Walter Isaacson, who is writing a biography of the Twitter, Tesla and Space X chief.

Isaacson described as “demon mode” as a highly productive phase for Musk, 51, but said during a Twitter Spaces interview that the volatile billionaire can operate “with a real lack of empathy,” especially when a staffers don’t appear to share his sense of urgency.

“He’d go dark and I’d know that he was just going to rip that person apart,” Isaacson said, according to Business Insider. The biographer acknowledged that was common to see that behavior when Musk first took over Twitter in October and immediately fired about half its 7,000 staffers.

The tag of “demon mode” was first given to Musk by ex-squeeze Grimes, Isaacson said. The musical artist has two children with Musk.

Musk got a good deal of attention in the first months of his Twitter ownership for his insistence that the remaining staffers commit to “extremely hardcore” work or leave the company. “This will mean working long hours at high intensity,” Musk wrote in a memo to staffers in November. “Only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade.”

By February, as the social media platform bled advertisers and struggled to relaunch “Twitter Blue,” the pressure inside the company ramped up even further, as Musk pulled all-nighters at its San Francisco headquarters and pressured staffers to follow suit.

Isaacson, known for his prior books on Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci, said he spent about two years tailing Musk in preparation for the biography due out in September via Simon & Schuster. He announced the book was ready in May via a tweet.

His prior work has shown that many brilliant and successful people, including Jobs, have a “dark streak,” Isaacson said, but that Musk’s raging was “uncomfortable” for him to watch.

“He is just brutal,” Isaacson said. “The thing that I noticed is that once he finishes doing it — and it was never physical and it was almost done in a flat monotone — but he would just really attack people and then a few days later, if they absorbed the lesson, he’d forget about it. It would be as if he went from becoming Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde and then didn’t even think that much or remember that much of how tough he had been on people.”

He observed that the criticism was effected about 80% of the time, and “problematic” about 20%, including when he chewed out a man who had made a mistake two weeks after losing a child.

In the book, Isaacson attributes the personality streak and his willingness to take risks to his relationship with his father and the bullying he endured as a child in South Africa.

“Elon Musk also has a desire for drama, both in his personal and in his professional life,” Isaacson said. “He is somebody who feels most comfortable when he’s ordered up a hurricane or surge.”