Elon Musk Frame Control: Case Study

elon musk interview with dialogue transcribed

Elon Musk recently gave an interview to CNBC host David Faber.

It was a fantastic interview.
And with countless opportunities for improving social skills, reputation, and general life effectiveness.

For this post, we will focus on two traps as case studies on the importance of frame control.

elon musk interview with transcribed dialogue

Accept the wrong frame, and you take a reputation for a nasty capitalist, and lose the ability to influence and lead. Change the frame, and you take a reputation for a caring leader and gain the power to influence, lead, and accomplish big goals. HUGE difference -all based on your power awareness

Frame Trap: “You Set The Example For Mass Layoffs”

Let’s review the key exchange.

As a quick background, the interviewer has already broached the topic of mass layoff at this point.

And there were already some common interviewer nasty frames there.
But here is where it goes up a notch:

Interviewer: It’s funny, I heard from other tech CEOs (pause, add emphasis) quietly (pause) they look at what you did at Twitter and they sort of they won’t admit it publicly but you know they said “wow that was something” (I) mean (<— danger! Shifts the frame from “hard but necessary measure” to “wow, nasty”)

If you’ve become good at reading people and interactions, there are already many red flags you can spot here.
Those red flags already warn you that the interviewer is going for some nasty move -and that you need to defend yourself-.

If you also notice the last part, you can barely hear the “I” in “I mean”. So it sounds a lot more like the interviewer is saying that what Elon Musk did was wow-level mean.
And independently of what his intentions were, as Machiavelli says, what appears is.
So he already set up a frame of Musk taking mean action.

And then he doubles down with this:

Interviewer: to cut that deeply and still be able to run the company, people will argue about how well things are running, have you heard many of these CEOs say “thank you for doing that, giving us runway or at least making some cuts of our own”? (<— danger! This frame Elon Musk as the man providing the leadership and example to other tech CEOs to undertake more mass layoffs across the whole industry. Hardly the type of example you want to be publicly known for)

The interviewer set up a covert frame that Elon Musk led the way for other CEOs to go ahead with mass layoffs.

Dark Power Is STILL Power, But… We Can Do Better

A frame can be high-power, and still be bad for your reputation and goals because it frames you as a value-taker

Please note:

In a way, that’s a very empowering frame for Musk because it frames him as the #1 leader of an already elite cadre of high-power men.


It’s still not the best frame from a social strategist’s point of view because:

  1. Musk already enjoys that “leader among leaders” spot in everyone’s minds. Everyone knows Musk is the CEO of CEOs (plus some). Musk can enjoy that #1 status without the negative connotation.
  2. Musk can enjoy the “leader among leaders” frame while being a force for good. And he can only benefit from it.
  3. Once the interviewer frames him as leader of leaders, Musk will look equally powerful but classier by playing it down, thus looking powerful but humble.
    For example, he may say “you’re flattering the extent of my influence there, but in truth… “
  4. Musk would look a lot more powerful and smart by leading and reframing instead of following and accepting. Such as, instead of passively accepting a frame of him influencing other CEOs, he would SHOW everyone his social power. Much more powerful.

So, Elon Musk should refuse the “dark leader” frame because it’s simply not the best option for him.

Falls For The Frame Trap: “I Set The Example For Mass Layoffs, Yes”

And Elon Musk, unluckily, confirms that frame:

Elon Musk: I’ve heard that from a few people and I heard that through the grapevine yeah, but like I said if the desperate times call for desperate measures, unfortunately those were desperate times

Elon Musk’s frame of “desperate times call for desperate measures” was OK-ish.

Not the worst possible option, but still had many issues.

And a huge opportunity loss.

Let’s see:

Problem: You Get Pitched AGAINST Employees, And Lose Your Ability to Lead & Inspire

However, there are still some major issues with it:

  • Value-taking: Elon Musk’s actions are still framed as value taking
  • Nasty behavior: despite Musk framing it as “necessary”, the “nasty firings” initial frame is still there
  • Nasty leadership: Elon Musk is still framed as the owner who gave all other owners permission to slash jobs. Not exactly the type of great leadership you’d want to be associated with, right?

Most of all, this frame is terrible for effective leadership because it sets a frame of ruthless owners VS meaningless employees.

Effective leadership requires that the people you lead trust you, like you, and look up to you.
Smart and driven people, by definition, are also not stupid and lazy. And they know that you’re running a business and cannot guarantee jobs, and that they need to give value to you, the business, and the mission.
But effective leadership still requires that people believe that you, as the leader, have at least a minimum level of empathy and care for them as people, and not just as cogs in the bigger machine.

You must be careful with the frame of “the business always comes before the employees” because it turns people into meaningless cogs.
When that happens, people lose motivation. And they turn from givers who happily contribute to the mission, to selfish operators -the death of greatness and the hallmark of average business, groups, and output-.

So, even when you want to go for the general truth that the business and mission are bigger than the single individual, you must always add the caveats that you ALSO care about the people.

That’s what was missing here.

Better Option: Frame Your Action As SAVING Jobs

luke skywalker picture as a symbol of force for good

You can pick frames that are equally powerful, but framed as adding value to the world

All in all, Musk didn’t do TOO badly here.

And he didn’t come across as overly nasty or uncaring.

However, it was still a major opportunity loss for Elon Musk.
Both as an individual, and as a leader who wants to accomplish big goals.

An opportunity loss to display qualities and personality that he actually does have, including:

  • Value giving, instead of value-taking
  • Empathic, and caring and taking care of the people he employs
  • Great leader, the type of leader you look up to, and work harder for

And, also:

How could he have done that?

In Power University we go more in-depth with the mindsets to ingrain so you can come control frames on the fly.

Better Frame: Example

But, just as an example, here’s a better frame:

Interviewer: It’s funny, I heard from other tech CEOs (pause, add emphasis) quietly (pause) they look at what you did at Twitter and they sort of they won’t admit it publicly but you know they said “wow that was something” (I) mean
Musk: (jumping in and interrupting, if needed to) nono, wait, sorry if I jump in, but I think this is important. It may be true that some other CEOs looked at what was happening at Twitter, I don’t know that. I can only answer for my actions. And you’re getting it the other way around, it’s the opposite. That was a necessary act to save the company (<—- You surface and address the most important danger to your status: the meanness of the action, independently of what he wanted he to say)
Maybe one could say it was tough love, but still the only option to stay alive. The choice was NOT between firing or not firing. The choice was between saving the business, together with 1.500 employees, or losing the business together with all the employees

Notice that you act at the first hint of nasty and disempowering frame.
Earlier is always better because that way you nip it in the bud and prevent the nasty frame from expanding, enveloping you and, crucially, entering people’s minds and cementing.

As a general rule: act, don’t react.
Set, reinforce, and cement your frame early on, rather than reacting and fighting other people’s frames.

Some other frames he may have taken as well:

  • I did what was best for us, and other companies do what’s best for them, so you avoid taking responsibility for other companies’ layoffs. Or, fleshed out: “I decided to do what’s best for Twitter, our mission, and also for our employees. What other tech CEOs decide to do is up to them, and I strongly hope they also took the best decision for all”
  • More efficient companies are better for all (ie.: it’s a small short-term price to pay with temporary firing, but long-term good for all)
  • More efficient companies can give more (better services), for less money, while paying more
  • Long-term it’s also better for the people let go, since they can do more meaningful work elsewhere
  • Keeping employees you don’t need is lose-lose for all, it’s poor leadership, and you bring down the overall efficiency and that’s bad for all (plus, you’re also more likely to go out of business)

3 Rules For Frame Control


  • Interviewers are like police detectives: never your friends, not even when they seem friendly
  • If you’re good but the frame is nasty, shields up: if you’re generally a good person and anything someone says seems to frame you in a nasty way, it’s likely a trap or a power move
  • Whenever you feel you’re losing your power, reputation, or status, always question the frame at its highest level

That last part is the key.
Frame control techniques are great to have, but the foundations come first. Questioning the frame at its deepest level is one of the core skills we help our students internalize in Power University.

Hopefully this quick Elon Musk case study gave you a good idea of how to be a more effective social strategist.

For more on making frame control second nature, effortless self-defense, and gaining status and a great reputation, check out Power University.

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