Elon Musk leads with a genius ability to detect talent, energy, smarts, and total commitment. He is most interested in problem-solving, the ability to get results through people, and a no-excuses, take-responsibility leadership style. He has little regard for formally educated, book-smart people and values creativity.
“I think it is possible for ordinary people to choose to be extraordinary.”Elon Musk
The Famous Elon Musk Leadership Style
One of the wealthiest humans alive, “the real Tony Stark,” CEO of Tesla, SpaceX, and Neuralink (name the rest!), is not your average billionaire CEO.
This eclectic and eccentric serial entrepreneur has started and scaled businesses across several industries.
He’s one of a handful of tech’s most influential philosopher-CEOs, a genius problem solver, always coming up with laudable (and often crazy!) solutions to help our world tackle some of its most challenging problems.
For a man with so many soaring highs, Elon’s success is only matched by his controversial public persona.
From an on-air dope-smoking podcast appearance to his many wild outbursts on Twitter, Elon Musk is undoubtedly as controversial as he’s successful.
The awkward nerdy boy born and raised in South Africa was involved with several wildly successful tech ventures in his early days, from Zip2 and X.com to PayPal, among others. And not long ago, he was named the most inspirational leader in tech. Clearly, there’s a lot the rest of us can learn from him.
Full disclosure; I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting Elon Musk. So, it’s obvious I’ve not sat down to discuss with this brilliant mind.
Still, let’s imagine I get a peek into his mind and understand how he thinks and that you, too, can embrace his transformational leadership style, learn from this, and empower yourself to become a better leader for your team and organization.
Like Amazon boss Jeff Bezos and the late Steve Jobs of Apple, Elon Musk’s leadership style plays out as a style that has often been referred to as “transformational leadership.”
In contrast to a “transactional leadership” style, transformational leaders get the results they need by inspiring, motivating, and working closely with their teams.
Rather than hiring people to complete monotonous tasks, these leaders surround themselves with people who share their vision of changing the world.
Below are thirteen things we can learn from one of the 21st century’s most successful transformational leaders.
1. Challenging the Status Quo
“Do not follow trends blindly. Question and challenge the status quo”Elon Musk
If there’s anything that has defined Elon’s entire journey, it would be the fact that he doesn’t shy away from following the unconventional path and challenging the status quo.
This audacious entrepreneur is not afraid to think big, and you can see this with all of the businesses he has either founded or co-founded.
- Elon’s Tesla wants to revolutionize the car industry; he’s discussed blowing up a nuclear rocket on Mars to make it habitable.
- His Neuralink company is working on a brain-machine interface to integrate AI with the human brain.
These are bold and audacious moves by every standard.
And to achieve them, Elon takes equally bold and audacious solutions, even if it means doing things that have never been done before or simply doing old things in new ways.
One good example of this, according to SpaceX’s president, Gwynne Shotwell, at a TED conference in 2018, was how they designed SpaceX rockets from a “clean sheet of paper.”
Rather than build solely or primarily on legacy technologies often prone to reliability or cost issues, the team picked the most remarkable ideas from the rocket engineering industry and leveraged these to design its remarkable new rockets.
2. Setting Strategic Stretch Goals
The Harvard Business Review likens stretch goals to management moon shots.
Simply put, these are audacious targets that, given current knowledge, practices, or skills, often appear unattainable.
At times, these goals are made intentionally difficult with the goal of inspiring creative thinking to ensure the team is focused on the big picture.
Elon Musk is a master of thinking big and setting audacious stretch goals. At the same TED Conference in 2018, Shotwell said, “when Elon says something, you have to pause and not blurt out.
‘Well, that’s impossible.’ You zip it, you think about it, and you find ways to get it done. I’ve always felt like my job was to take these ideas and turn them into company goals, to make them achievable.”
Has Tesla been able to achieve all of these ridiculously ambitious goals? Hell NO!
In the Harvard Business Review publication earlier cited, you’d find that Tesla failed to meet 20 of Elon Musk’s audacious targets in the past five years, even missing half of those goals by almost a year as of 2017.
The publication, however, reiterated the significance of setting such goals to keep individual team members and the entire organization motivated and inspired.
3. Elon Musk Leadership Assembles the Right Team
In a discussion with Glassdoor on hiring employees, Elon Musk was quoted to have said, “Hire great people. This is 90 percent of the solution, as hiring wrong can cost you so much.”
Elon Musk noted hiring the right people as his most important advice for up-and-coming leaders.
While we’ll all agree that hiring the right people is vital to every aspect of your team or organizational success, how does Elon identify his’ right persons’?
“Generally, look for things that are evidence of exceptional ability. I don’t even care if somebody graduated from college or high school or whatever… Did they build some really impressive device? Win some really tough competition? Come up with some really great ideas? Solve some really tough problems?”Elon Musk
4. Inspiring and Motivating Your Team
The ability to inspire others is perhaps the single most important skill that separates successful leaders from others.
For a leader who has built businesses with about 100k employees collectively, Elon Musk is one of the most inspiring leaders of this generation.
According to Dolly Singh, former head of HR at SpaceX, Elon Musk has this uncanny ability to make others believe in his vision. It probably is easier when that vision revolves around building a better world.
Elon is also believed to have a level of enthusiasm and passion for his work that’s kind of contagious to others. This helps keep the team united around his visions and goals.
5. Micromanagement (but don’t do it like Elon!)
One aspect of Elon Musk’s leadership style that’s most often criticized is his extreme micromanagement style. Elon Musk has often been advised to hire a COO rather than try to get everything done all by himself.
One of his former employees is quoted to have said, “Elon fires some engineer that made some irrelevant, bad decision, and Elon sleeps on the factory floor until the problem is fixed, or whatever.“
The problem with micromanagement is that it can be either good or bad.
According to Professor Roshni Raveendran of UVA Darden, rather than being a leadership style, micromanagement is merely a label we give to actions that tend toward controlling minute details within a team in inappropriate situations.
It’s a dynamic phenomenon that’s more dependent on the person showing the actions and the other person’s reaction.
For instance, a new inexperienced employee would be more receptive to the detail-oriented scrutiny of a team leader, while this might be viewed in a negative light by a highly experienced and more competent employee who’s more likely to prioritize autonomy.
Elon Musk’s leadership style takes being detail-oriented to an extreme length, and this management style can impact employees negatively when applied in the wrong context, as expressed by Spencer Gore, a former Tesla employee, when he said, “When [Musk] involves himself in low-level details, it’s to enhance execution speed. For some engineers, this can be frustrating, at times, heartbreaking.
6. Prioritizing Communication
The Elon Musk leadership style we’ve come to know has demonstrated what artful and effective communication should look like. In one email he sent out to Tesla employees years ago on communications within Tesla, he emphasized the need for employees to develop a direct objective approach to sharing information.
In the mail, Elon mentioned why employees don’t need to follow a specific hierarchy or flow of communication to avoid stifling great ideas and burying feedback within a complex communication channel. What does this mean for you as a leader?
- Make sure you’re readily available to hear as many voices as possible
- Be ready to listen to what members of your team and organizations really think.
7. Using Continuous Feedback for Improvement
“I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better.”Elon Musk
Elon Musk strongly values feedback, positive or negative.
In an interview, he was quoted to have said, “really pay attention to negative feedback and solicit it, particularly from friends. … Hardly anyone does that, and it’s incredibly helpful.”
There are just too many reasons why you should prioritize feedback as a leader. This can range from helping to boost transparency, create a clearer picture, and conduct performance evaluations to make improvements.
According to Forbes, asking for feedback is a common trait observed in Elon and most other great leaders, according to Forbes.
8. Eliminating Biases and Assumptions
One of the most popular stories about Elon Musk’s leadership style is how he adopts a First Principles Mindset approach to solve every problem.
Unlike the vast majority who start problem-solving by first thinking of limitations, Elon begins by thinking about the possibilities.
For Elon Musk, this helps eliminate biases and assumptions, whether conscious or unconscious, that often act as barriers to creativity during decision-making processes.
9. Not Catching Meeting Madness
Elon is not a fan of meetings and doesn’t hide that fact.
On those too many unnecessary and often ineffective office meetings, Elon advises that you “get off all large meetings, unless you’re certain they are providing value to the whole audience, in which case keep them very short.”
Having your calendar filled up with meetings does not imply productivity.
Many of those meetings are often unnecessary, which is more reason why about 44% of office workers now suffer from video conferencing fatigue in the wake of the pandemic.
Before you schedule your next meeting, ask yourself; Is this necessary? What is the agenda?
10. Being Flexible and Adaptable
Change is the only constant thing in life and business, so adaptability is a key requirement for every great leader. Adaptability itself requires flexibility, which of course, happens to be one of the strengths (and faults) of Elon Musk.
People close to Elon have remarked on how easily he changes his mind depending on whatever problem they’re facing at the moment. He has a reputation for changing course on projects quickly in the face of new developments.
While it makes sense to foster flexibility and adaptability as a leader, you want to make decision-making less erratic, so it doesn’t rub off negatively on the other players on your team.
11. Being Proactive
Proactive leadership is about identifying risks in your systems and processes and working with your team to put plans in place to address these risks.
Elon Musk’s leadership style rarely waits for problems to happen before he moves to prevent them.
And as expected of every great leader, he’s always fond of incorporating solutions that either reduce the impact of problems identified or eliminate the possibility of their occurrence.
When Elon Musk started with SpaceX, he allocated $100 million and said he’d shut down operations if he failed to launch a rocket into space with that budget. The first two attempts failed and cost $90 million. The third and successful attempt cost $10 million.
12. Lessons From Failure
From failing to launch into space at the first two attempts to the ‘unbreakable’ Cybertruck’s window cracking up not once but twice, Elon Musk has had his fair share of many successes and multiple failures.
Failure would come, and it often does, even for a detail-oriented perfectionist like Elon. It’s, however, up to you not to allow such failures to derail your vision. Ideally, you want to pick the lessons in these, improve on them the next time and develop a winning mentality.
13. Continuous Learning
Jim Cantrell, SpaceX’s first engineer, said;
“In the same way that Musk absorbed books, he tried doing that with other people’s expertise. It was as if he could suck the experience out of them. He truly listens to people.”
As a leader, you want to cultivate a culture of continuous learning for continuous growth. This is important to help you break new barriers and discover new solutions to problems.
In the same way, you want to inspire your entire team to continuously look for new ways to improve.
The Elon Musk leadership style might be eccentric and unpredictable at times.
But hate him, or like him, you can’t take away the fact that this extraordinarily successful man has excellent leadership and people management skills.
Elon Musk’s leadership style has helped build Tesla into one of the most valuable companies in the world, among his several multi-billion-dollar ventures.
He’s undoubtedly one of the most influential leaders of our time, and honestly, we’d be damned not to learn from him.
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