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The phone call came without warning, a few minutes after 5 p.m. on Thursday.
“David, please hold,” a voice said. “I’m about to connect you with Elon Musk.”
Moments later, Mr. Musk — the brash Silicon Valley billionaire at the center of a swirling drama — was on the line.
It was the call everyone was hoping for but no one really expected would come. Mr. Musk is one of the most consequential executives of our time, a man of soaring ambition who has routinely proved doubters wrong. The chief executive of both Tesla and SpaceX, and a founder of PayPal, he has introduced the mass-market Model 3 sedans and launched the world’s most powerful private rocket. And that was just in the last year.
Yet as Tesla has struggled to meet production goals in recent months, his behavior has grown increasingly erratic. Just nine days earlier, he had sent an impulsive tweet suggesting he would take Tesla, his publicly traded electric-car company, private in a multibillion-dollar deal.
His tweet sent Tesla shares soaring, caused Nasdaq to halt trading of the stock and sparked a federal investigation. But since then, Mr. Musk — who is chatty on Twitter but has a testy relationship with journalists — had not spoken to the press.
Mr. Musk’s silence in the days before the call didn’t stop The Times from reporting on the story. All week, my colleagues had been writing original and insightful pieces about Tesla. The Securities and Exchange Commission had subpoenaed the company. Tesla’s board wanted Mr. Musk to stop using Twitter. And there were urgent questions about Mr. Musk’s mental state.
By Thursday, appetite for stories about Mr. Musk and Tesla was still strong, and I was part of a team pursuing several leads. The goal was to explain what was happening inside Tesla, and to the extent we could, inside Mr. Musk’s own head. At best, we hoped we might get some of his associates, or perhaps even a Tesla board member, to speak to us on the record. And while we had been trying to get Mr. Musk to agree to an interview for days, working through intermediaries, it wasn’t looking promising. The company was in damage control mode, and no one seemed to be talking.
Then, suddenly, Mr. Musk was on the phone.
In my 10 years as a business reporter, I’ve interviewed a lot of C.E.O.s. I profiled Mark Zuckerberg before Facebook was a public company, pulled back the curtain on an elusive private equity chief and chronicled the unraveling of President Trump’s C.E.O. advisory councils last year.
While each of those articles was different, my interactions with the executives were more or less the same. There was almost always a public relations representative for the company in the room, hovering nearby to make sure the boss didn’t say something inappropriate. The C.E.O.s usually stuck to talking points that portrayed their companies, and themselves, in a flattering light. And the executives — all of whom have had hours of media training — usually delivered crisp, if dry, answers to just about any question I threw at them. They were programmed not to say anything that might make them appear vulnerable, and certainly not anything that might raise suspicions about their ability to lead a company.
My most recent role at The Times, as the new Corner Office columnist, has provided me with a forum to have somewhat more personal conversations with business leaders. Ken Frazier, the C.E.O. of Merck, was candid in his remarks about why he split with Mr. Trump last year. Stacy Brown-Philpot, the C.E.O. of TaskRabbit, spoke frankly about being a black woman in Silicon Valley. Paula Schneider, the C.E.O. of Komen, told a moving story about working through breast cancer treatment. Still, even the executives I speak with for Corner Office are careful not to leave themselves too exposed.
But on Thursday with Mr. Musk, none of these rules seemed to apply. After a few awkward minutes of introductions, Mr. Musk began speaking in deeply personal terms, and went on for a full hour.
“This past year has been the most difficult and painful year of my career,” he said early in the conversation. “It was excruciating.”
Mr. Musk provided new details about how and why he sent his fateful tweet, and new insights about his bizarre run-in with the rapper Azealia Banks. He continued to rail against the short-sellers betting Tesla stock would fall, calling them “not supersmart.”
But the most intense moments of the interview came when I asked Mr. Musk whether his extreme work ethic was taking a toll on his physical and emotional well-being.
“It’s not been great, actually,” Mr. Musk said. “I’ve had friends come by who are really concerned.”
He paused, the line going quiet as he was seemingly overcome by emotion.
“There were times when I didn’t leave the factory for three or four days — days when I didn’t go outside,” he said. “This has really come at the expense of seeing my kids. And seeing friends.”
Midway through our conversation, I asked Mr. Musk if he believed he had turned a corner. Were things about to get better for him?
“The worst is over from a Tesla operational standpoint,” he said.
It was the kind of bland answer I’ve come to expect from the C.E.O. of a public company, and I assumed he had completed his thought.
Then, after a moment of silence, Mr. Musk continued: “But from a personal pain standpoint, the worst is yet to come.”
It was one of the most extraordinary interviews of my career, and by one simple measure it was a first: In all the conversations I’ve had with business leaders over the years, not until Elon Musk got on the phone had an executive revealed such vulnerability. By speaking with such candor — choking up, pausing repeatedly to regain his composure — Mr. Musk made clear just what a steep toll his work was taking on his personal life. It was a reminder that despite all their efforts to make the public believe otherwise, C.E.O.s have feelings, too.
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