Neil deGrasse Tyson, the celebrity astrophysicist and bestselling author, wants Elon Musk's critics to leave him alone. Tyson compared Musk to inventor Thomas Edison in a recent interview with TMZ and defended his right to smoke marijuana during a podcast with a comedian.
But even Tyson concedes that Musk isn't above the law. As the CEO of a publicly traded corporation, he is required to play by the rules. There are limits to what he can and cannot say.
Musk's looming troubles with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission serve as a reminder to top-level executives in all publicly traded companies. You can and will be held accountable for what you say.
Back in August, Musk tweeted that he might take Tesla private, and suggested that he had the funding necessary for such a move. Now it seems as though he might have been exaggerating. Perhaps he wasn't thinking clearly or maybe he hadn't gotten enough sleep.
No doubt, the SEC will get to the bottom of it. Meantime, however, Tesla stock is suffering, 58 executives have reportedly left the company in the past 12 months, and investors are wondering aloud if Musk should be replaced as CEO.
There's a larger lesson, however. During World War II, dock workers in the U.S. and Great Britain were warned that "a slip of the lip can sink a ship." The slogan was a reminder that Nazi spies had infiltrated the docks and were listening closely to gather useful bits of information that could be used against the Allies.
I thought of that slogan when I was in an airport recently and overheard three business travelers denigrating one of their clients. I was truly amazed at their carelessness and apparent lack of concern. If anyone who worked at their client's company was within earshot, they could have easily put the account in serious jeopardy.
I admire Neil deGrasse Tyson and I enjoy watching his shows about science. But I think he missed a valuable opportunity to use Musk's misstep as an instructive lesson. In today's world of instantaneous communications, all of us need to exercise extra caution. We need to choose our words very carefully - especially when we speak in public or use social media.
Moreover, we need to remind our teams and our partners to exercise caution. Anyone associated with the enterprise can cause damage by speaking or writing imprudently. That's just a fact we have to live with.
Here's a suggestion: Spend an hour with your team talking about Musk and what his comments have cost Tesla. Remind them of their responsibilities and remind them about the possible consequences of revealing company information. Invite a representative from HR and from your legal department to join the conversation. It will be time well spent.
"A slip of the lip can sink a ship" doesn't just apply to boats - it applies to the modern enterprise, too.