Musk pushes a profane new frontier

Elon Musk is keen to achieve what no business leader has done before, from mass-producing electric cars to developing reusable space rockets. Now he is blazing another trail most chief executives have avoided: the profane insult.

The Tesla CEO told advertisers who have fled his social media platform X over anti-Semitic content to "Go f*** yourself!" in an interview on Wednesday.

Several business communications analysts said they couldn't remember a similar case of an executive publicly cursing at their customers. The job of a chief executive is to do deals, not burn bridges, they said.

"It's openly attacking your customer. That's more the offence than the language itself," said Andy Challenger, senior vice president of outplacement and executive coaching firm Challenger Gray & Christmas.

Musk, Tesla and X did not respond to requests for comment.

Cases of business leaders using crude language - sometimes for emphasis, sometimes to show informality - turn up on various corporate earnings calls.

Last year, the CEO of European airline Ryanair RYA.I Michael O'Leary lashed out at plane maker Boeing over lagging deliveries.

In 2018, Scotts Miracle-Gro CEO Jim Hagedorn offered a blue rant about a business unit including that "those bastards are gun-shy as s*** right now," according to a recording. Newspaper owner Sam Zell famously told one of his own journalists "f*** you" in an exchange in 2008.

Elon Musk's vast wealth means he can suffer financial setbacks at X, formerly known as Twitter....
Elon Musk's vast wealth means he can suffer financial setbacks at X, formerly known as Twitter. Photo: Getty Images
The context of Musk's comment was different, however, as he was questioned about the departure of advertisers from X following his endorsement of an anti-Semitic post.

Musk apologised for it and then cursed and dismissed the concerns of the advertisers fleeing the platform.

Academics who have studied swearing say it can relieve stress, build bonds or create a sense of urgency. But profane words can also convey a lack of respect, leadership skills or control, according to a 2017 paper by authors including Yehuda Baruch, a University of Southampton business professor.

Musk's outburst was of the negative type, Baruch said in an interview. His curse was "surely an indicator of a loss of temper and loss of control. It doesn't show stress relief. Someone at his level shouldn't be using the f-word to vent his anger," Baruch said.

Some analysts argue the rise of casual office culture and work-from-home settings have encouraged more swearing on the job. To be sure, Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, said ribald phrases seemed more common 40 years ago and declined as more women entered the workforce.

Cappelli said Musk wishes to see himself as a rock star, not a business leader who needs to take account of many constituencies. Meanwhile Musk's vast wealth means he can suffer financial setbacks at X.

"If it (X) were a public company, he would have been fired a long time ago, but he doesn't care and he's willing to lose a lot of money. The business community can't discipline someone who doesn't care about losing money," Cappelli said.