I was taught from a young age that leadership is about people, and the skills inherent or learned that allow one to lead people. Skills including communication, empathy, and cool-headedness.
Elon Musk is decidedly not those things. He’s robotic, abrasive, and mercurial — even to the people closest to him. He’s more likely to call you an idiot in front of your peers than coach you through a process.
But if I were teaching a leadership class, I would be doing my students a disservice if Elon was not the focus of at least one chapter.
When you look at his life, what he's trying to accomplish, and how he’s doing it, you can’t help but feel inspired. He’s a leader, not in a traditional sense, but in all the ways that matter.
Class is in session. Let’s learn about Elon’s leadership qualities.
1.) Think big, and let your purpose provide context
In Adam Grant’s bestseller Originals, he describes original thinkers as someone who “sees the imagined structures in our lives, government, and companies… She’s creative enough to find holes and maintains the courage to fill them in.”
There’s a funny story from Ashlee Vance’s Elon biography. Ashlee and Elon met for dinner one night to discuss the book. Ashlee asked how things are going, hoping for small talk. Instead, the first thing that came out of Elon’s mouth was,
“I am afraid Larry Page (Google CEO) is creating artificial intelligence that will destroy mankind.”
Musk thinks big.
He’s launching humans into low orbit with SpaceX, solving the energy crisis with Tesla and SolarCity, and developing a hyperloop that will get people from Columbus to Chicago in 30 minutes. Leading just one of those ventures would drive even the hardest person insane.
The scale of your work will likely not include Mars (at least I hope not), but it’s important to understand the role you play in your professional development. Your Martian colony can be your purpose, your grand pursuit of a better life. The 5, 10, 15-year goal that you tackle in bit size pieces each day that clarifies your decision making.
It may not always feel like it, but that’s thinking big.
2.) Forget specialization, shoot for a range of skills
Musk calls himself an engineer and physicist, but his grasp of business management and finance is equally astonishing. He’ll work with engineers solving space shuttle aerodynamic complications at SpaceX in the morning, then talk to a board of investors about Tesla’s marketing campaign in the afternoon.
Journalist and author of the book Range, David Epstein, calls this application of knowledge “far transfer” Or the ability to transfer knowledge effectivity into new areas.
“Successful problem solvers are more able to determine the deep structure of a problem before they proceed to match a strategy to it.” — David Epstein
“You should have a broad engineering and scientific background.” Said Larry Page when talking about Elon. “You should have some leadership training and a bit of MBA training or knowledge of how to run things, organize stuff, and raise money. I don’t think most people are doing that, and it’s a big problem. When you’re able to think about all of these disciplines together, you kind of think differently and can dream of much crazier things and how they might work.”
We live in a society built for specialists, but what would happen if we actively developed a breadth of knowledge? The outcome: we will recognize effective solutions to problems and place ourselves in positions to succeed.
3.) Optimism, the most underrated quality of a leader
Optimism does not get talked about enough in leadership. We toss leaders problems and ask them to risk their reputation with each decision. A leader must be solutions-oriented and not afraid to fail. Two qualities impossible for pessimists.
Elon’s optimism has carried him through some dark moments. In 2008, Tesla faced cash flow problems, and the company’s Roadster model failed to meet production estimates. What’s worse, the vehicle received a shameful review on the British car show Top Gear, which for many car truest, means death.
Yet he remained confident about his company’s process and where technology was heading. He was on the right side of history and believed it.
Then something wild happened between 2008–2012, Tesla survived. Elon kept alive the promise of his company and electric vehicles. Now we may live to see the day when Tesla becomes the world’s most valuable carmaker.
“What he went through in 2008 would have broken anyone else, “says Tesla investor Gracias, “Most people under that sort of pressure fray… Their decisions go bad. Elon gets hyperrational. He’s still able to make very clear, long-term decisions. The harder it gets, the better he gets.”
4.) Creative genius is great, but do you have the will to act?
Elon says he’s been thinking about space, renewable energy, and the internet since college. A cheeky embrace of the Tony Stark personae? Perhaps. But I don’t doubt him. Every decision since college has moved him closer to exploring those areas.
Take the story of Elon’s humble beginnings in rocket propulsion:
Before turning 30, a board of investors voted Elon out of his second company, PayPal. When the smoke settled, executives invited him to a party to celebrate the company’s success. “We’re all hanging out in the cabana.., and Elon is there reading some obscure Soviet rocket manual that was all moldy and looked like it had been bought on eBay. Said Keven Kartz, an executive at PayPal, “He was studying it and talking openly about space travel.”
Not long after, Elon and a team of advisors hopped on a plane to Russia to learn from Russian space programs. Programs that Elon would one day disrupt.
The courage to act is critical for original thinkers. You can dream, think big, and come up with solutions, but those ideas are worthless unless you dare to act.
5.) Entrust others with your vision
There’s nothing simple about Elon’s goals. A 3D tunnel network, autonomous vehicles, solar glass roof tiles, artificial intelligence, and a multi-planetary future — you know, in case the previous ideas don’t work out.
He’s open about all of his crazy ideas, which you don’t often see among the billionaire entrepreneur crowd (Jeff Bezos) who hold their cards close to their chest.
He wants to challenge the world while influencing it. He’s tackling massive problems that require the all world’s brainpower to execute — operating these ideas in a vacuum is not good enough.
Take what he’s done with SpaceX. The rest of the space industry has done nothing but stagnant over the last two decades, doing little more than send Verizon satellites into space for faster internet connections. Meanwhile, SpaceX built a team of scientists who are actually excited about sending people to space again.
The lesson: keep your goals and purpose front and center, who knows what help, mentors, investors, and characters you might attract to the party.
We are all human, even if we don’t act like it
Thus concludes my leadership lecture on billionaire, playboy, philanthropist Elon Musk.
It’s important to remember, especially when analyzing leaders, that no one is perfect. The qualities that elevated Elon to one of the most innovative entrepreneurs on the planet are tightly bound to his character flaws scrutinized in the media.
Leadership is about taking the good with the bad — that’s the human element at work. But can we, like Elon, truly believe that tomorrow will be better than today? That’s being a leader in all the ways that matter.