Here’s why so few CEOs fire back at Elon Musk — even if they want to


Elon Musk
Elon Musk was a frequent topic of questions at the DealBook Summit — though executives like Jamie Dimon and Bob Iger shied away from responding. Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images
  • Elon Musk has become known for picking fights with business leaders and politicians.
  • But business executives and other billionaires tend to tiptoe around the Tesla CEO.
  • Here’s why no one wants to badmouth the world’s richest man.

Elon Musk rarely holds back.

He’s called Joe Biden “a damp sock puppet in human form” and seemingly mocked Bill Gates’ weight. He’s tweeted crude digs at a senator and challenged Mark Zuckerberg to a cage fight.

But when it comes to returning the favor, the rich and powerful are much more hesitant.

Just consider November’s DealBook Summit. Musk stole the show with his no-holds-barred interview, during which he told advertisers fleeing X to “go fuck yourself.”

Hours before he took the stage, he was the topic of much more restrained conversation.

“We’re going to have Elon Musk here this afternoon. What do you think of him?” host Andrew Ross Sorkin asked JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon.

“He’s obviously a brilliant human being and making unbelievable contributions to mankind. But he, you know, comes with pluses and minuses,” answered Dimon, who reportedly hasn’t always gotten along with the Tesla CEO.

Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos is among the executives who haven’t criticized Elon Musk. David Ryder / Stringer

It wasn’t just Dimon.

“I have a lot of respect for Elon and what he’s accomplished,” Disney CEO Bob Iger said, answering a question about Disney’s decision to pull advertising from X. “We know Elon is larger than life in many respects and that his name is very much tied to the companies he either has founded, or he owns.”

Then, a few weeks later, on an episode of Lex Fridman’s podcast, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos evaded a question about Musk.

“I don’t really know Elon very well. I know his public persona, but I also know you can’t know anyone by their public persona,” Bezos said. “He must be a very capable leader. There’s no way you could have Tesla and SpaceX without being a capable leader. It’s impossible.”

Even Zuckerberg, who initially played along and accepted Musk’s invitation to a cage match over the summer with bravado, shied away from badmouthing the Tesla CEO in an interview shortly after the pair’s online back-and-forth.

Photo collage of Elon Musk on the left and Mark Zuckerberg on the right
Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg tossed around the idea of fighting in a cage match over the summer. It hasn’t happened. Getty Images

“He’s definitely a change agent,” the Meta CEO told The Verge in September, delicately side-stepping any overt criticisms of how Musk was running Twitter. “He’s been pretty polarizing, so I think that the chance that it sort of reaches the full potential on the trajectory that it’s on is … I don’t know. I guess I’m probably less optimistic.” (And, of course, Zuckerberg has rushed out Threads to compete with X.)

So why is Musk the very rich elephant in the room? Why are people being so restrained about someone so unrestrained? (In further evidence of the trend, none of the business titans above responded to requests for comment from BI for this story. Musk also didn’t respond.)

In part, it comes down to an intimidation factor.

“He has a platform,” said Eric Dezenhall, the founder of crisis-management firm Dezenhall Resources. He likened the Tesla CEO to Donald Trump. “Musk has a similar power to call somebody out. Nobody wants to be in that position to be called out.”

Musk bought Twitter — now X — in October 2022 and uses it as his biggest megaphone.

No one wants to be on the receiving end of one of Musk’s nicknames, said Deznhall, who represents Fortune 500 companies and large institutions — and they also don’t want to fall victim to his legion of fans who routinely come after the objects of his derision.

Another crisis communications expert — who, perhaps in proving the point, requested anonymity to avoid professional repercussions — agreed that the consequences of speaking ill of Musk are rarely worth it.

Jamie Dimon
JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon called Elon Musk “brilliant,” but admitted he came with pluses and minuses. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

“If you’re going to criticize them,” it has to be worth the risk, the expert said of powerful individuals. After all, “Do you want to make yourself a target?”

As for Musk, the PR expert warned: “If he gets bloodied, he’ll get up, and he’ll bloody the other guy.”

Musk also has the seemingly untouchable combination of luck and money: He’s the richest man on Earth, despite years of inflammatory remarks and business decisions that have, quite literally, blown up in his face.

“When you have the combo of bottomless wealth and the life experience, you will get away with things — that’s a very different way to go through life,” Dezenhall said.

Basically, Musk lives by different rules.

Of course, there’s also a more benign reason for business leaders to avoid going after Musk: decorum.

“How often do you see one executive criticize another on the record?” the anonymous crisis communications expert pointed out. Doing so can come off as petty or spiteful, he said.

Bob Iger
Bob Iger hasn’t taken the bait when it comes to responding to Elon Musk’s brickbats. Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

And potential reputational damage could be acute when the one doing the criticizing is the CEO of a public company, like Iger or Dimon.

“Iger can’t be throwing F-bombs back,” Dezenhall said, referencing Musk’s attack on Iger at the DealBook Summit. “CEOs of a publicly traded company are like the town mayor — they can’t offend anyone.”

It’s one reason Iger has had to keep his mouth shut, even as Musk has turned up the heat, suggesting the Disney CEO should be fired.

But the erratic Musk almost begs for a reaction. In the last couple of months alone, he’s endorsed an antisemitic conspiracy theory and let Alex Jones on X.

The fact that Musk is the internet’s biggest troll is why so many interviewers dangle the bait. An honest sound bite on Musk is pure gold, so don’t expect the questions to end anytime soon.

“You ask a question, and you never know what the answer is,” the anonymous crisis management expert said. “Can you imagine Bezos badmouthing Musk?”

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