September 08, 2018
Elon Musk may have been one of the few chief executives ever seen with marijuana in an online video interview. But as the legalization movement gains steam, he joins other business leaders who have been open about using cannabis.
Can CEOs Get Away With Smoking Pot?
The Tesla Inc. chief executive provoked an internet sensation and a tumble in the electric-car maker’s share price after taking a puff from what was described as a marijuana cigarette this week on “The Joe Rogan Experience,” a popular podcast streamed live on YouTube. “I mean, it’s legal right?” Mr. Musk said from the Los Angeles studio where the interview was filmed. “Totally legal,” replied Mr. Rogan, the comedian who hosts the show.
Mr. Musk—who added that he “almost never” smokes weed and didn’t find it helpful for productivity—is hardly the first CEO to discuss trying or using marijuana. Virgin Group founder Richard Branson and the late Steve Jobs acknowledged indulging in recreational marijuana at some point. George Zimmer, founder and former chairman of Men’s Wearhouse Inc., said he has been a cannabis user for decades and, in 2015, he gave a keynote speech at the Cannabis World Congress & Business Exposition advocating marijuana legalization. Meanwhile, other business luminaries, such as George Soros and Bill Gates, have been public in their support for initiatives to legalize marijuana.
Still, context is everything, and whether chief executives can openly admit marijuana use without facing repercussions—such as losing their jobs—depends largely on the culture and the constituencies of the companies they run, CEO coaches and executive recruiters say.
“Old-school executives have made much worse decisions over two-martini lunches than anyone is making because of smoking marijuana every once in a while,” said Jeffrey Cohn, global managing partner at DHR International, an executive-search firm. That said, he added, “it would be a lot different for [an older-company CEO] to be doing that than a startup founder” like Mr. Musk.
Indeed, many of the limited number of CEOs on record for having dabbled in marijuana use have been company founders like Messrs. Jobs and Branson, as opposed to corporate chieftains promoted to the helm. Having that visionary aura—and a greater influence over their company’s board of directors--may give them more license to discuss what they consume in private, Mr. Cohn said.
Can CEOs Get Away With Smoking Pot?
Mr. Zimmer, who was ousted from his position as executive chairman of Men’s Wearhouse in 2013 amid clashes with his successor as CEO, said that even as marijuana use becomes more socially acceptable, leaders of publicly traded companies like Tesla still have to be careful in openly discussing marijuana use.
“I would advise Mr. Musk to go slowly in his [talk about marijuana] because it’s probably a couple of years still before the culture has really shifted on this,” said Mr. Zimmer, who has since founded Generation Tux, an online tuxedo- and suit-rental company.
More problematic for Mr. Musk is the timing with Tesla’s other challenges, said Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management. The podcast during which Mr. Musk took a puff was his first public appearance since dropping a controversial attempt to take the company private and came amid production challenges and questions about his behavior.
Mr. Bernstein added that while the social stigma around marijuana use is shrinking, boards of directors are scrutinizing their CEOs’ private lives and behavior more closely, particularly in the age of social media and the #MeToo movement. Chief executives “have to realize that nothing they do in private is necessarily private,” Mr. Bernstein said.
Even in California, where Tesla is based, and other states where marijuana use is legal, many companies also have code-of-conduct policies that forbid working under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Tesla’s own policy says use of illegal drugs in the workplace won’t be tolerated.
At the least, a CEO’s marijuana use can create an appearance of conflict with a company’s corporate values, said Keith Goudy, managing partner of Vantage Leadership Consulting, a Chicago-based executive coaching firm. “If a CEO gets to smoke marijuana, but people assembling heavy machinery at the company don’t, what does that say?” he said.
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