Power Players

Elon Musk is a business 'savant,' but 'his gift is not empathy,' according to his brother Kimbal

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Elon Musk's brother Kimbal Musk applauds to him at a briefing after the launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft on NASA's SpaceX Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S. May 30, 2020.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

Elon Musk runs two of the world's most innovative and valuable tech companies — but you may not want to be his assistant.

The 50-year-old SpaceX and Tesla CEO is a business "savant," but his "gift is not empathy with people," his brother and longtime business partner Kimbal Musk told Time magazine earlier this month.

The savant claim is hard to deny. By Elon Musk's own token, both Tesla and SpaceX were much more likely to fail than succeed when each first launched in the early 2000s. Yet Tesla's market value is $1.1 trillion as of Monday, and SpaceX was most recently valued at $100.3 billion in October — helping the tech magnate cement his status as the world's richest person, with a net worth of $274 billion, according to Bloomberg.

But that largesse doesn't appear to extend to his interpersonal skills, a claim echoed repeatedly in recent years by friends, foes and Musk himself.

"I reinvented electric cars and I'm sending people to Mars in a rocket ship," the billionaire said in May while hosting NBC's "Saturday Night Live." "Did you think I'm also going to be a chill, normal dude?"

In 2015, author and journalist Ashlee Vance published a 400-page biography of Musk — and told Vice that Musk has "the weirdest kind of empathy."

"He doesn't have a lot of interpersonal empathy, but he has a lot of empathy for mankind," Vance said. "I think he has a completely different set of emotions than the average person does."

Research shows that empathetic bosses can make most employees feel significantly more productive and engaged. In a survey published by New York City-based workplace nonprofit Catalyst earlier this year, 61% of respondents with "highly empathic senior leaders" said they felt consistently innovative at work, compared with only 13% of other respondents.

Similarly, 76% of people who said they had a caring boss reported feeling "often or always engaged" at work, compared with just 32% of those with "less empathetic" bosses.

Musk seems to fit into that latter category. For years, he's said that space exploration and travel are essential to humanity's survival, and that electric vehicles can help combat climate change. But some employees and ex-employees say they're forced to endure toxic, damaging workplaces to work on those potentially world-changing projects.

After Musk was named Time's Person of the Year earlier this month, former SpaceX engineer Ashley Kosak wrote an op-ed for online publication Lioness alleging that she was sexually harassed during her tenure, and that Musk helped create the workplace atmosphere responsible for it.

"Elon makes promises he doesn't hold himself accountable to, shifts the goalpost constantly, unnecessarily strips resources from people who are working themselves to the brink of burnout, and then sends threatening messages to remind them that their efforts will never be adequate," Kosak wrote.

After the op-ed's publication, four other ex-SpaceX employees reported separate workplace harassment stories to The Verge.

Similar allegations exist at Tesla, where production assistant Jessica Barraza sued her employer last month over "rampant sexual harassment" and "nightmarish conditions" at the company's Fremont, California-based plant. Six other women have since filed similar lawsuits, many of them directly blaming Musk for Tesla's workplace culture, according to The Washington Post.

Neither SpaceX nor Tesla immediately responded to CNBC Make It's request for comment.

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Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of CNBC and NBC, which broadcasts "Saturday Night Live."