Elon Musk was up early on Saturday. He departed Los Angeles, where he runs SpaceX, his private rocket venture, and flew north in his white Gulfstream jet. Stopping in Silicon Valley, he picked up two engineers from Tesla, his electric-car company. They flew on to Reno, Nev., where they spent the day at Tesla’s battery plant, the Gigafactory.
It might have been just another workday for Mr. Musk — a multistate jaunt to personally fix a drive-unit production line. But this was no ordinary morning. He was a brief night’s sleep removed from one of his most consequential decisions: scrapping his plan to take Tesla private.
It was an abrupt about-face, and it capped a tumultuous two and a half weeks that began with a single tweet and wound up roiling markets, setting off regulatory alarms and raising questions about his judgment. Even by Mr. Musk’s standards — this is a C.E.O. who believes Tesla is under attack by saboteurs, has a personal life playing out in the gossip blogs and is prone to fiery outbursts on Twitter — it has been a time of high intrigue.
“The reason Elon seems to attract drama is that he is so transparent, so open, in a way that can come back to bite him,” said Kimbal Musk, Mr. Musk’s younger brother and a Tesla board member. “He doesn’t know how to do it differently. It’s just who he is.”
Mr. Musk, a brilliant but erratic billionaire, is the animating force behind Tesla, responsible for everything from its push into renewable energy to the design of the air vents in its newest electric car. His singular role gives him extraordinary influence over the fate of Tesla, its more than 40,000 employees and its investors.
Associates, including several people inside the company interviewed over the past week, portray him as a workaholic who zeroes in on the smallest details. His deep involvement suggests that the company can’t do without him. Yet these days, it’s not always clear that he knows what’s best for Tesla.
Even before taking Tesla investors on a roller-coaster ride, Mr. Musk was increasingly unpredictable, marketing flamethrowers online and dispatching a submarine to assist in a rescue in Thailand, then calling a critic of the gesture a pedophile. In an interview this month with The New York Times, Mr. Musk said he was physically exhausted and emotionally drained, causing some to question his fitness for the job.
Mr. Musk’s personal life is no less chaotic. He was dating Grimes, the Canadian pop musician, but the two stopped following each other on social media last week, leading gossip blogs to speculate they had broken up. That followed a bizarre run-in with the rapper Azealia Banks, who intimated that Mr. Musk had written his going-private tweet while on acid. (He denied it.) Amid the fallout, he took to Twitter, posting cryptic messages about love and quoting T. S. Eliot.
And at the office, he is hardly a typical chief executive. Racing to resolve critical production issues, he can often be found on the factory floor, working to fix robots. At night, he sometimes sleeps under his desk. All the while, he has been confronting an exodus of senior employees, preparing to be interviewed by the Securities and Exchange Commission, and was working with Goldman Sachs and Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund to take Tesla private — until he wasn’t.
Some board members have been dismayed at Mr. Musk’s behavior, according to people familiar with the directors’ thinking, but no active search is underway for a replacement — although there have been fitful efforts to find a top lieutenant.
James Anderson, the head of the asset management firm Baillie Gifford, Tesla’s biggest shareholder after Mr. Musk, said he still had faith in the 47-year-old chief executive, calling him a “visionary leader” who had unmatched technical expertise and remained “obsessive about the details.”
Yet Mr. Anderson said he had grown increasingly worried about Mr. Musk, believing that his volatile personal life and intense work ethic were taking a steep toll. “He is so demanding, so driven by the imperative to do something good for the world,” Mr. Anderson said. “You could always see something like this happening.”
‘We Feel Like We Are at War’
At 6:30 a.m. on Aug. 18, three robots in the paint shop at the Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif., started malfunctioning. The incident forced a production halt on the Model 3, the key to the company’s future.
Made aware of the stoppage, Mr. Musk went to the factory and worked into the night. The problem was resolved, but Tesla reached a troubling conclusion: The robots had been infected with malware in an act of industrial sabotage. And though they could not prove it, executives suspected they knew the culprit: a rogue employee, working at the behest of short-sellers.
Tesla is among the most shorted stocks, meaning that hedge funds are betting against it and quick to note a missed production goal or cash shortfall. David Einhorn, the billionaire founder of Greenlight Capital, is in that camp. In a letter to investors last month detailing his argument, Mr. Einhorn wrote, “Elon Musk appears erratic and desperate.”
Mr. Musk believes that the short-sellers spread misinformation about the company, and perhaps much worse. In June, Mr. Musk accused an employee of sabotage that had slowed Model 3 production, and suggested short-sellers might be to blame.
Kimbal Musk, reflecting on the battles with short-sellers, said, “We feel like we are at war.”
Plenty of other companies face the wrath of short-sellers. The issue at Tesla seems to be that for Mr. Musk — who talks earnestly about weaning the world off fossil fuels with Tesla, and colonizing the solar system with SpaceX — these attacks are not just the cost of doing business. They are malicious and misguided efforts to derail his efforts to help humanity.
“Tesla is his baby,” said Deepak Ahuja, Tesla’s chief financial officer. “He takes it extremely personally.”
But with Tesla now staying public, Mr. Musk will have to continue to contend with those who doubt his vision and are rooting for Tesla to fail.
When Mr. Musk ceremonially unveiled the Model 3 last summer, he billed it as the first mass-market electric vehicle, and predicted monthly production of 20,000 by year’s end. But in the final three months of 2017, just 2,425 were completed.
The delays were a result of what Mr. Musk called “manufacturing hell,” an inferno that has preoccupied him for much of the past year. “This has been the most difficult time for Tesla,” said JB Straubel, the company’s chief technical officer. “We knew this was going to be the case, but it’s been even harder than any of us expected.”
Some of the wounds were self-inflicted.
In preparing the assembly lines, Mr. Musk became convinced that the process should be close to fully automated, using robots rather than humans whenever possible. Doing so, he believed, could make cars move through the factory at one meter per second, 10 to 20 times the speed of existing lines.
So Tesla built a factory with hundreds of robots, many programmed to perform tasks that humans could easily do. One robot, which Mr. Musk nicknamed the “flufferbot,” was designed to simply place a sound-dampening piece of fiberglass atop the battery pack.
But the flufferbot never really worked. It would fail to pick up the fiberglass, or put it in the wrong place, frequently delaying production. It was eventually replaced by factory workers.
Mr. Musk has accepted responsibility for some of these missteps, occasionally with humor. In late June, he wore a T-shirt depicting a robot that passes butter. It was an inside joke, lampooning the notion of technology for technology’s sake.
After the debacle, Mr. Musk tweeted: “Excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake. To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated.”
As the challenges have mounted, Mr. Musk has thrown himself into his work, spending hours each week walking factory floors, trying to diagnose and fix various problems on the assembly line.
“He demands personal accountability from the people that are closest to the machines,” Mr. Straubel said. “This freaks people out. They are worried that he will come to their area and start asking questions.”
Yet Mr. Musk’s micromanaging has taken a toll on Tesla’s executive ranks, with more than 30 senior employees having departed since 2016, according to a list compiled by Reuters. Among the departed are the director of battery engineering, the vice president for autopilot and the director of manufacturing engineering, all positions crucial to Tesla’s future.
Amid the turnover, Mr. Musk has become even more hands-on. Recently, he and Mr. Straubel were at the Gigafactory, assessing a bottleneck in the manufacturing process. A machine that wound electrodes into formations known as jelly rolls was too slow, and employees could not figure out a remedy.
Then Mr. Musk intervened, suggesting that the machine be reprogrammed to work more rapidly. By the end of the day, the machine was 10 percent faster.
It was a small victory, and a reminder of Mr. Musk’s technical acumen. But it was also a stark example of how he operates. Apparently unable or unwilling to delegate, the chief executive has embedded with the line workers.
“A C.E.O.’s most important job is build a great team around you,” said Bill George, the former chief executive of the medical device maker Medtronic and a Goldman Sachs board member. “He shouldn’t be sleeping on the factory floor. I’d rather have him sleeping at home.”
Mr. Musk has increasingly complained about his lifestyle’s physical toll. He has said he works 120 hours a week, sometimes not going outside for days at a time. At a meeting last week at SpaceX, he was lying on the floor in his cubicle, using a foam roller to relax his back muscles.
“He is absolutely working incredibly hard, but Elon has always worked incredibly hard,” said Mr. Ahuja, Tesla’s chief financial officer. “He’s very tough, too. He can eat glass.”
In an attempt to force his body to sleep, Mr. Musk sometimes takes Ambien, something he has discussed publicly on Twitter and that has raised concerns among some Tesla board members. He often spends Sunday nights at the Tesla factory, then flies to Los Angeles for the 10 a.m. executive meeting at SpaceX. (SpaceX, in contrast to Tesla, is a bastion of stability, and earlier this year successfully launched the world’s most powerful private rocket, the Falcon Heavy.)
“I know that it has been a difficult year for him,” said Gwynne Shotwell, the SpaceX president and chief operating officer. “Not because he’s frowning or throwing things, but because I can tell he’s physically exhausted.”
In the interview with The Times, Mr. Musk said his work had been so consuming that he nearly missed Kimbal’s wedding in Spain this summer. “I got there two hours before the ceremony,” he said. “I left directly from the factory. And then I went straight back.”
But while Mr. Musk is clearly working hard, his recounting paints an incomplete picture of his travels. He was away for five days during his trip to Spain, and on the way back, he stopped with his children in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to tour the “Game of Thrones” set.
Mr. Musk also told The Times that he had not taken a full week off since 2001, while recovering from malaria. But he has made time for memorable holidays over the past year.
A few days before New Year’s Eve, he boarded his jet with Kimbal, their families and another close friend, Bryn Mooser. The plan was to go to Antarctica. But on the way there, weather worsened, and they had to land in Santiago, Chile.
Realizing they would not make it to Antarctica, the group laid new plans. They would party in Rio de Janeiro on New Year’s Eve. But first, they took a day trip to Easter Island to visit the mysterious statues left by an ancient civilization. While there, Mr. Mooser recalled, they discussed aliens, Mr. Musk’s plan to colonize Mars, and how Easter Island, threatened by climate change, could be viewed as a cautionary tale.
“He cares deeply about the world and the people on it,” Mr. Mooser said. “His fault is that he cares too much, sometimes.”
Not Out of the Woods
On Thursday morning, Mr. Musk addressed his board at a hastily convened meeting in a conference room at the Tesla factory. His sleeping bag was still on the floor. When he announced that Tesla would be staying public, at least one director cheered out loud.
Mr. Musk’s stunning reversal came about after he realized that while going private would remove some headaches — such as short-sellers — it could introduce others, including entanglements with conventional auto companies or oil kingdoms that hardly symbolize an all-electric future.
But the move didn’t provide a full reset. There is a looming investigation by the S.E.C. over the circumstances of his Aug. 7 tweet announcing that he had “funding secured” to take the company private, an assertion that proved shaky.
Peter Henning, professor of law at Wayne State University, said Mr. Musk’s tweet was “clearly incomplete disclosure,” adding that if the S.E.C. decided to pursue a fraud case, the consequences could be severe.
“The penalty that scares everyone is a director and officer bar,” Mr. Henning said. “If you are found to have misled investors, the S.E.C. can seek to bar you from serving as an officer or director of a public company. That could remove Elon Musk from Tesla.”
Mr. Musk also must contend with a shareholder lawsuit that challenges Tesla’s acquisition of SolarCity, his solar panel business. And he must try to replenish the executive ranks and stabilize Model 3 production, all while managing his volatile social life.
As he juggles these disparate challenges, Tesla’s fans and foes will be scrutinizing Mr. Musk’s words, his actions and even his moods. Will he spar with short-sellers on Twitter? Will he erupt on the next analyst call?
Whatever he is thinking, Mr. Musk seems likely to make it known. “Elon always speaks very frankly, sometimes to his detriment,” Ms. Shotwell said. “That’s the only way he knows how to communicate.”