From Elon Musk to Sam Bankman-Fried, a bad week for market geniuses, but was it their fault

From the FTX bankruptcy and downfall of crypto “rock star” Sam Bankman-Fried to the chaos at Twitter, it has not been a good week for the geniuses of capitalism. Elon Musk’s abrupt and in some cases already reversed decisions since taking over the social media company back up his contention that so far his tenure “isn’t boring,” but also expose the type of corporate governance issues that are too often repeated to the detriment of shareholders.

“Without a doubt, Sam Bankman-Fried is a genius,” said Yale School of Management leadership guru Jeffrey Sonnenfeld in an interview with CNBC’s “Taking Stock” on Thursday. “But what’s hard is that somebody has to be able to put on the brakes on them and ask them questions. But when they develop one of these emperor-for-life models … then you really don’t have accountability,” Sonnenfeld said.

Few would doubt the genius of Elon Musk, or Mark Zuckerberg, for that matter, but few would put them in the same class with many companies that have failed spectacularly, though Sonnenfeld says they share the link of being allowed to operate without enough corporate oversight.

“It’s not crazy to talk about Theranos, or WeWork, Groupon, MySpace, WebMD, or Naptster – so many companies that fall off the cliff because they didn’t have proper governance, they didn’t figure out, how do you get the best of a genius?” Sonnenfeld said.

In the case of Bankman-Fried, who stepped down from his CEO role at FTX as the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Friday, Sonnenfeld pointed to the lack of a board that should have been asking tough questions.

But boards are often unable to manage genius, Sonnenfeld said. Zuckerberg is another example. When Meta, formerly Facebook, announced it would be shifting its focus to the metaverse last year, Sonnenfeld said his board members were essentially powerless. Meta laid off 11,000 of its employees this week and announced a hiring freeze as it has faced declining revenue and increased spending on a metaverse bet that Zuckerberg has said may not pay off for a decade.

Tesla shares have not been immune from Musk’s Twitter takeover, with the stock plummeting this week after Musk told Twitter employees on Thursday he sold Tesla stock to “save” the social network. One Wall Street analyst decided that Twitter is now a business risk to Tesla and yanked the stock from a best picks list.

Musk (though not Tesla’s founder) and Zuckerberg oversaw the creation of two trillion-dollar companies, though both have now lost that market-cap status in stock declines caused by a variety of factors — from macroeconomic conditions to sector-specific risks, a market valuation reset for high growth companies, and also leadership decisions.

Market research shows that founders can be a financial risk to company value over time. Founder-led companies have been found to outperform those with non-founder leaders in early year, according to a study from the Harvard Business Review that examined the financial performance of more than 2,000 public businesses, but virtually no difference appears three years after the company’s IPO. After this time, the study found that founder-CEOs “actually start detracting from firm value.”

Major players in Elon Musk’s Twitter deal, including Fidelity Investments, Brookfield Asset Management and former Twitter CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey, did not take a seat on the company’s board or have a voice throughout the transaction, Sonnenfeld said, which gave the deal no oversight. Musk is now splitting his time between six separate companies: Tesla, SpaceX, SolarCity/Tesla Energy, Twitter, Neuralink and The Boring Company.

Companies led by lone geniuses need strong governance first and foremost. Sonnenfeld says having built-in checks and balances and a board that has field expertise as well as the ability to watch out for mission creep is critical to allowing these businesses to function with less risk of costly blunders.

Tesla and Meta governance scores within ESG rankings have long reflected this risk.

That doesn’t mean the market doesn’t need geniuses.

“Sure, we’re better off with Elon Musk in this world as we are better off with Mark Zuckerberg,” Sonnenfeld said. “But they can’t be alone.”

Through the recent issues, these under-fire leaders have been critical of themselves.

FTX’s Sam Bankman-Fried tweeted Thursday morning that he is “sorry,” admitting that he “f---ed up” and “should have done better.”

Zuckerberg said of the mass layoffs at Meta in a statement equal parts apology and unintended restatement of the governance problem, “I take full responsibility for this decision. I’m the founder and CEO, I’m responsible for the health of our company, for our direction, and for deciding how we execute that, including things like this, and this was ultimately my call.”

Musk tweeted, “Please note that Twitter will do lots of dumb things in coming months.”

But whether an apology or an admission from genius that it too can be dumb on occasion, Sonnenfeld says these leaders would be better off letting others do the criticizing — much sooner, and much more often.

“They have to be managed, they have to be guided and they have to have a board that can help get the best out of themselves and not let them develop this imperial sense of invincibility,” he said.


By Barbara Collins, November 12, 2022