Musk tweet sparks debate on Tesla leadership

Elon Musk presents the sort of divisive leader on whom history decides.

On Aug. 7, the Tesla CEO tweeted that he was considering taking the company private.

This, in the middle of the trading day, led to a jump in shares and an all-consuming company focus on social and digital media. That was followed by Musk’s declaration that he had investor support and then by his blog post in support of a move to go private — all while the company’s board remained silent. Almost a day later, the board said it is evaluating Musk’s idea of taking the company private.

Within the head-spinning array of questions posed by these events, the prime focus is on Musk’s leadership and the strength of corporate governance at Tesla.

“Elon Musk is using social media like a cowboy. You can’t responsibly swing the financial performance of a company stock by tweeting,” said Betsy Atkins, founder and CEO of Baja Corporation, who led three companies across a range of industries including energy, health care and networking.

As a corporate governance expert, Atkins also sits on the board of at least four public companies, including Cognizant, Wynn Resorts, SL Green Realty and Schneider Electric, as well as the privately held Volvo Cars.

“Tesla’s board knows they have a rogue CEO. Why aren’t they doing more?” Atkins said Wednesday on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street,” adding that “this is failure of governance at the board to not conduct proper oversight.”

Musk’s leadership has been periodically criticized because of his failure to meet Model 3 production targets, questionable behavior on analyst calls and impulsive tweeting.

“He is a failed public company CEO. Tesla has to go private, or it will be a major disaster,” Atkins said.

Still, Musk has devotees just as passionate as his detractors.

“Elon is the greatest innovator in modern history — the Edison and Einstein combined. Even Steve Jobs doesn’t hold a candle to Elon in terms of accomplishments,” said Vivek Wadhwa, distinguished fellow at Carnegie Mellon University and Harvard Law School and a self-described Elon Musk fan.

“Elon has proven the critics wrong over and over again. The latest was when he increased production of the Model 3 to 7,000 cars per week — far more than the 5,000 he’d previously promised. He gets no credit for all this and the short-sellers and media critics keep finding minor faults,” said Wadhwa, an engineering expert and co-author of “The Driver in the Driverless Car.”

“Taking the company private will allow him to develop the many businesses — automotive, solar, energy storage and auto sharing — without having to constantly watch his back,” Wadhwa said on “Squawk on the Street.”

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