Elon Musk’s biographer saw him fly into ‘demon mode’: hard to watch but effective

Elon Musk’s biographer, Walter Isaacson (right), said the Twitter owner would “rip” people apart in meetings.
Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Vanity Fair
  • Walter Isaacson said Elon Musk could be “brutal” and would go into “demon mode” at times.
  • The biographer said the criticism was productive, but made some people afraid to tell him the truth.
  • Musk has said he gives “clear and frank” feedback and said he hasn’t “rage-fired” people.

Elon Musk biographer Walter Isaacson said the billionaire can go into “demon mode” at times — a state of being that Isaacson characterized as “dark” and “with a real lack of empathy,” but also highly productive.

He said during a Twitter Spaces interview on Thursday that the musical artist Grimes, Musk’s former girlfriend, coined the term. She told him that while it can be “unpleasant” to be around Musk when he’s in demon mode, it’s also the mode that “gets shit done.”

Grimes, whose given name is Claire Boucher, has two children with Musk; she didn’t return a request for comment.

Isaacson plans to release his biography on Musk in September. He has written biographies on several innovators, including Steve Jobs and Leonardo da Vinci. He said many brilliant and successful people, like Musk and Jobs, have a “dark streak.”

Elon Musk attending the Met Gala with ex-partner Grimes.
Ex-girlfriend Grimes told biographer Walter Isaacson that it can be “unpleasant” to be around Elon Musk when he’s in “demon mode.”
Theo Wargo/Getty Images

They are not saddled with as much empathy and as a result are more able to focus on accomplishing a larger mission, Isaacson contends.

In Musk’s case, the billionaire has a “maniacal sense of urgency” that could be frightening for some of his workers, the biographer said. He said the CEO’s entire demeanor would change when people did not match his sense of urgency.

“He’d go dark and I’d know that he was just going to rip that person apart,” Isaacson said, adding that it was a common occurrence when the billionaire first took over Twitter and gutted over half of the social media site’s staff.

The biographer, who was an observer of Musk’s day-to-day life for about two years, said the moments of rage were “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.”

Isaacson said that about 80% of the time Musk’s criticism seemed effective and 20% of the time it was “problematic,” even making people “afraid to give him bad news.” He said that at times he’d later find out that the man Musk had chewed out had made a mistake because of personal issues, like losing a child two weeks prior.

Isaacson said Musk told him it’s a form of “egotism” to want to be empathetic to a single person at the expense of the larger mission. The biographer said his book aims to show the complexity of Musk and the balance between his “dark streak” and the incredible work he has done at Tesla and SpaceX.

Errol Musk, the father of tech billionaire Elon Musk who spent his early life in apartheid-era South Africa, poses for a portrait at his house Langebaan, South Africa
Biographer Walter Isaacson attributes Elon Musk’s “dark streak” and his willingness to take risks to his relationship with his father, Errol Musk (pictured).
Gianliuigi Guercia/Getty Images

Isaacson attributes Musk’s “dark streak” and his willingness to take risks to his relationship with his father, as well as the bullying he endured in his youth.

“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.”

Musk’s mother, Maye Musk, expressed concern that while her son is “exceptional” there is “danger” he could become like his father, Isaacson said.

In her book, Maye Musk described her relationship with her ex-husband as abusive. Musk has said his father, Errol Musk, is “a terrible human being.” Maye Musk didn’t return a request for comment from Insider.

Errol Musk told Rolling Stone in 2017 that he has never intentionally hurt anyone, excluding one scenario where he said he shot and killed three people who he said illegally entered his house.

Errol Musk denied he contributed to Musk’s “dark streak” in an emailed statement to Insider, saying that “these days Elon and I are on fairly good terms.”

Maye Musk and Elon Musk at the Met Gala in May, 2022.
Elon Musk’s mother, Maye Musk, (pictured, left) expressed concern that while her son is “exceptional” there is “danger” he could become like his father, biographer Walter Isaacson said.
Gotham/Getty Images

Isaacson is far from the first to point out that Elon Musk can be prone to bouts of anger.

Tesla cofounder Martin Eberhard previously told Insider that Musk used to scream at him over press coverage on Tesla. And in a previous biography on Musk, The Wall Street Journal’s Tim Higgins said the billionaire had a reputation for exploding at top executives and employees on the assembly line at Tesla, even rage-firing some.

In the past, Musk has denied allegations that he rage-fired employees, calling them  “false” on Twitter and saying he gives “clear and frank” feedback to employees.

Musk didn’t respond to a request from Insider for comment.

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