Will Elon Musk’s narcissism be his downfall?
Electric car charger

Will Elon Musk’s narcissism be his downfall?

The surprising similarities between Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Shai Agassi, CEO of Better Place
8 min.
October 2018

If you were thinking that the above comments came from Elon Musk, CEO of Telsa, you would be wrong. Those quotes are from a February 2009 TED Talk by Shai Agassi, then CEO of Better Place.

Agassi, an Israeli citizen, founded Better Place in 2007 with $200 million from enthusiastic investors. His mission was clear: to change the world by creating a new business model for electric vehicles. Just like Musk, he was extremely charismatic and told a compelling story. He started better place essentially as a side project while he was a young executive board member with Germany’s SAP, where he was on a track to become CEO. But Better Place became Agassi’s calling following a conversation with Israeli President Shimon Peres who challenged him: “What is more important than saving your country and saving the world?” He left SAP in March 2007 to commit to this mission with Better Place.

Agassi was fired from Better Place in mid-2012 and the company declared bankruptcy in mid-2013.

So, what went wrong? What can we – and Tesla – learn from Better Place’s story?

It’s possible that Better Place’s failure was more a result of markets, consumers and countries not being ready to support its business model. But it’s hard to overlook Agassi’s personality as the key driver in both Better Place’s rise and its fall.

Sigmund Freud characterized narcissists as especially suited to be leaders and uniquely able to give a fresh stimulus to cultural development – but also prone to damage the established state of affairs. Shai Agassi’s greatest strength, perhaps, was his ability to give such fresh stimulus to cultural development. Others – from engineers to investors to politicians – bought into his story and wanted to change the world with him. An SAP colleague said he’d “never seen someone as skilled as Shai at selling abstract concepts.” An investor dubbed him “the Steve Jobs of clean energy.” Agassi was a natural leader who compelled people to buy into his vision.

The business world has seen the emergence and disappearance of leaders with narcissistic characteristics. Narcissists are risk takers willing to take on enormous challenges. Many of the modern business world’s most successful CEOs exhibit narcissistic characteristics – Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs.  These CEOs became phenomenally successful by blending confidence and risk-taking with strategy development and execution. Ultimately, firms have to execute in order to succeed; execution is where Shai Agassi struggled most.


Research Information & Knowledge Hub for additional information on IMD publications

Looking for something specific?
IMD's faculty and research teams publish articles, case studies, books and reports on a wide range of topics