November 30 (Reuters) – (Please note the coarse language in paragraphs 2 and 7)
From mass-producing electric cars to developing reusable space rockets, Elon Musk is striving to achieve what no business leader has done before. Now he’s blazing another trail that most CEOs avoid: foul language.
Tesla’s ( TSLA.O ) chief executive told advertisers who fled his social media platform X over anti-Semitic content to “Fuck you!” in an interview on Wednesday.
Several business communications analysts said they could not recall a similar instance of an executive publicly berating his customers. The CEO’s job is to make deals, not burn bridges, they said.
“This is an open attack on your client. It’s more of an insult 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.
Instances of business leaders using crude language — sometimes for emphasis, sometimes to show informality — have surfaced on various corporate earnings calls. Last year, the chief executive of European airline Ryanair ( RYA.I ) Michael O’Leary attacked plane maker Boeing over delivery delays.
In 2018, Scotts Miracle-Gro ( SMG.N ) Chief Executive Jim Hagedorn had bad words about the business unit, including that “those bastards are shy as shit right now,” according to a filing. Newspaper owner Sam Zell told one of his own journalists “fuck you” in a 2008 conversation.
The context of Musk’s comment was different, however, as he was questioned about advertisers pulling out of X following his endorsement of an anti-Semitic post. Musk apologized for it and then berated and dismissed the concerns of advertisers fleeing the platform.
Scientists who have studied swear words say they can relieve stress, build relationships or create a sense of urgency. But profanity can also express a lack of respect, leadership skills or control, according to a 2017 report by authors including Yehuda Baruch, a business professor at the University of Southampton.
Musk’s outburst was of the negative type, Baruch said in an interview. His cursing “is certainly indicative of a loss of temper and a loss of control. It doesn’t show stress relief. Someone at his level shouldn’t use the e word to vent his anger,” Baruch said.
Some analysts argue that the rise of casual office culture and work-from-home settings have encouraged more swearing in the workplace. Of course, Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, said that rude phrases seemed more common 40 years ago and have declined as more women have entered the workforce.
Cappelli said Musk wants to be seen as a rock star, not a business leader who has to cater to many voters. Meanwhile, Musk’s vast wealth means he could suffer financial setbacks at X.
“If (X) was a public company, he would have been fired a long time ago, but he doesn’t care and is willing to lose a lot of money. The business community can’t discipline someone who doesn’t care about losing money,” Cappelli said.
(This story has been corrected to correct a typo in paragraph 7)
Reporting by Ross Kerber; Editing by Lisa Shoemaker
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Ross Kerber is the US sustainable business correspondent for Reuters News, a beat he created to cover growing investor concern about environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, and the response from executives and policymakers. Ross joined Reuters in 2009 after a decade at The Boston Globe and has written extensively on topics including proxy voting by the largest asset managers, the corporate response to social movements like Black Lives Matter, and the response to ESG efforts by country of conservative politicians. He writes Reuters’ weekly sustainable finance newsletter, which you can subscribe to here – https://tinyurl.com/mvhkev7m