In an interview with The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern, Elon Musk said that he’s no longer Tesla’s CEO. Instead, he goes by the title of Technoking, which he told Stern he did “as kind of like a joke, just to show that these titles don’t mean a lot.”
“It’s interesting, these titles,” Musk said. “You know that there’s actually only three titles that actually mean anything for a corporation? It’s president, secretary, and treasurer. And technically they can be the same person. And all these other titles are just basically made up. So CEO is a made-up title, CFO is a made-up title. General counsel, a made-up title. They don’t mean anything.”
It’s also worth mentioning that Stern was asking Musk whether he planned to step down as CEO, or whether he intended to regain his position as chairman of the board, a title he gave up in an agreement with the SEC in 2018. Musk has previously shared his thoughts about being CEO, complaining in January that “the sheer amount of work required to be the CEO of Tesla is insane.”
The interview was a part of the Journal‘s CEO Council, which is an interesting audience to try to sell the idea that their title doesn’t mean anything. It would be easy to write off Musk’s comments as just another example of him saying something controversial for attention. Before you do, however, he kind of has a point. Two, actually.
The first is that, as Musk explained, CEO isn’t a legally recognized title when you form a company. It isn’t even necessary, at least not as far as most of the laws that govern corporations. In fact, as far as I was able to tell, the title was first used in the early 1900s, and was–as Musk said–a title someone made up to signify the executive at the top of the organizational chart.
Of course, when Musk says that titles like CEO and CFO “don’t mean anything,” what I think he’s saying is that they mean whatever a company or organization decides they mean. They don’t have a legal definition. That’s fine, but it can create confusion.
Some companies have a “president/CEO.” Some have a chairman and CEO who are the same person. Some have both a CEO and a separate president. Sometimes the president is also called the “chief operating officer.” My point is that the titles don’t always tell you a lot about what the person actually does. Then again, I don’t know what a “Technoking” does either.
That highlights the first point: Titles are helpful to the extent that they help clarify roles. In that sense, it’s useful to have some kind of standardized set of titles that anyone can look at and at least roughly understand what it is you do.
I think, to some extent, what Musk was saying is that whether or not he has the title of CEO, he’s the guy that sets the direction for the company. He’s the person that the rest of the team looks to for vision and strategy, and all the things we think of from a leader. All of that, however, has nothing to do with his title, and everything to do with his influence.
The proof is that, as Musk tells it, he isn’t even technically the CEO anymore. Has anything changed? Not really. Musk is still the most visible face of Tesla, and it’s clear that the company is built based on his vision.
This leads us to the other, possibly more important point. Leading isn’t about having a title, it’s about having influence. It isn’t about being at the top of the org chart, it’s about taking an idea, communicating it as a compelling vision, and holding people accountable to deliver it as a product.
A lot of entrepreneurs think of themselves as CEOs or future CEOs. Becoming a CEO, whether of a company you founded or of one that has been around for decades, is the ultimate signal of success. It means you’ve arrived at the top, right?
Except, most people probably should be less worried about becoming CEO and more concerned with building something successful. If that’s you, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. It doesn’t mean you aren’t capable of running a company, it just means that if you’re focused on the title, you’re probably doing it wrong. After all, arguably the most successful person in the world just said it doesn’t mean anything.