Elon Musk is without a doubt one of the most innovative leaders of our generation, Forbes even formally ranked him first in its most innovative leaders of 2019 list and he as a net worth in excess of $130bn as of November 2020 making him the second richest person in the world. He founded Zip2 which he sold to Compaq in 1999, he then founded X.com which became more famously known as PayPal. He then went on to found Space X, become CEO of Tesla, created SolarCity and founded The Boring Company, Neuralink and OpenAI. He is a leader who is transforming the world. So, what can we learn from Elon Musk’s leadership?
Lead from the front
One criticism often thrown at leaders is that they take the credit for other people’s hard work. The world is full of CEO’s and founders who spend most of the day on the golf course or having fancy lunches and dinners while their team do all of the work. No one can ever accuse Elon Musk of not putting in the work. As he has famously said:
“Just work like hell. If other people are putting in 40 hour work weeks and you’re putting in 100 hour work weeks, even if you’re doing the same thing, you know that you will achieve in four months what it takes them a year to achieve.”
Whether this workload is healthy or not, is a different discussion, but from a leadership perspective its hard not to be inspired by a guy who is literally changing the world and doing it nearly 15 hours every day. He sets big scary goals for his teams. They are literally changing the world on a daily basis. Moreover, Elon Musk is the one charging ahead right at the front asking others to go with him. This attracts the type of employees who really want to make a lasting impact and be part of something exceptional, and believe due to the leader they have, they will get there. His team want to help him achieve these goals and are willing to go the extra mile because he always does.
Failure is demanded
Another common trait of Elon Musk’s leadership is that he not only accepts that failures will happen and encourages folks to learn from it, but he actually demands failure from his team. As he has said on multiple occasions:
“Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”
He is trying to revolutionise the world, and in order to do that, he is trying to do things that have never been done before. In order for that to work, its impossible to not fail consistently along the way. It took Edison 10,000 attempts to create the lightbulb, now imagine trying to build a spaceship, or link human brains with computers. The team are pushing the boundaries of humanity and in order to do so, he needs his team to be brave and try new things that will fail on a daily basis to discover what will actually work. If he punished failure, his teams would not be able to push the boundaries as no one would be willing to try and achieve such insane, game changing goals.
Disregard process and education
Finally, another cornerstone of Elon Musk’s leadership has been his attitude to process and education. Where most look for experts who are well versed in their fields with ample qualifications, Elon Musk has often actively looked to side-line these individuals. He has said the following:
“The problem is that at a lot of big companies, the process becomes a substitute for thinking. You’re encouraged to behave like a little gear in a complex machine. Frankly, it allows you to keep people who aren’t that smart, who aren’t that creative.”
He has openly said that it is ridiculous if he companies insist on someone having a degree or specific qualifications as all they have learned to do is to follow the same processes and thinking of everyone else in the field. He himself started a space company and a car company with zero experience in either of these areas. So rather than hire a qualified engineer from Ford, he would hire someone who was an Architect who designed buildings. The people have the same transferable skills, e.g. to design structures, consider variables etc, but the architect would not be limited by what conventional thinking is within the car industry. He believes that without uncapped creativity and freedom progress and innovation are impossible