Emily Marsh March 21 2019

4 things Elon Musk can teach us about effective leadership

Notwithstanding the controversy that surrounds him, Elon Musk is one of the most successful leaders of our lifetime. But what makes him so successful? We explore five lessons he can teach us about effective leadership.

Elon Musk, dubbed “the world’s most remarkable living entrepreneur”, has created several billion-dollar companies based on his ideas, from ZipX, to Tesla, to SpaceX.

While he may have been shrouded by controversy this past year, from smoking marijuana during an interview to a couple of ill-judged tweets, there's no denying his achievements as a leader in the tech world.

But how does he do it? And whether you're a fan of his or not, what can we learn from Elon Musk about leadership?

1. Tackle obstacles head on

Elon Musk is a visionary, and truly believes in every business venture he puts his mind too. Because he has such a strong vision, he isn’t afraid to face obstacles others might find impossible to overcome.

This is one of the things Musk is known for – tackling obstacles head on. The projects he’s been involved in tackle almost every major industry and global problem, from automotive, to telecommunications, to energy.

And if there is a problem within the organisation, you can be sure Musk will be right there, taking a hands-on approach to helping find a solution:

“I always move my desk to wherever - well, I don’t really have a desk, actually. I move myself to wherever the biggest problem is in Tesla.”

However, Musk has been heavily criticised for having an unhealthy work ethic. As revealed in this article from The Guardian, he's been known to work 120 hour weeks, often sleeping at the Tesla factory. He has also admitted to constantly being on email, even when interacting with his children.

And although he clearly likes to put himself at the heart of problem-solving, in true adaptive leadership style, it's important not to underestimate the benefits of sharing risks, ideas, and decision making with your whole team. By empowering everyone in the organisation to tackle obstacles themselves, you will not only accelerate the success of the business, but build a more engaged and fulfilled workforce at the same time.


2. Treat failure as a lesson

A good leader will always pick themselves up – and their teams – when things go wrong. They approach the problem from a different angle until finding something that works.

Musk’s ethos is: “Failure is an option here. If things are not failing you are not innovating.”

And Musk has often demonstrated how he continually reviews and adapts his strategies. Take trying to land a rocket on a drone-ship in outer space, for example. SpaceX have spent years trying, failing, and learning from their failures in their mission to “send people to Mars by 2024.”

But, can there sometimes be a risk that you adapt too quickly? Most people would have argued that Musk dropping out of Stanford after just two days because he decided he could make a bigger impact by focusing on the booming internet was a bit rash. It may have worked out for him, yet, changing tactic so quickly and boldly doesn’t always pay off.

Changing course abruptly as a leader in an organisation can be disorienting for the rest of the team, especially if they are comfortable with the way things are currently going. But like any change initiative, this is why it’s so important that leaders communicate to their teams in a timely manner any change in strategy or direction.

3. Continually strive for better

One thing Musk does seem to get right is his dedication to continuous improvement. For instance, Musk recognises feedback as one way to become a better leader. As well as inviting people to give him constructive feedback, he encourages his teams to do the same. He is a big advocate of the power of truthful feedback for improving individual, team, and organisational performance:

“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. I think that’s the single best piece of advice: constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.”

At t-three, we know how powerful feedback can be in helping people to become the best version of themselves. As a leader, being aware of how your behaviour is perceived by others means you can adapt your approach to get the best out of your team in any situation. A healthy dose of emotional intelligence is also valuable, and Musk’s ability to identify others’ emotions and change the way he works with people to better lead is something every leader should strive to emulate. 

4. Prioritise learning

Even from an early age, Musk was reading two books a day, and his success can in many ways be attributed to his enthusiasm and appetite for learning. Musk has even been known to quiz engineers for hours on end just to soak up their knowledge. Jim Cantrell, aerospace consultant who worked with Musk for SpaceX, told Business Insider: “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.”

An adaptive leader will create a culture of continuous learning and growth. They empower people to always look for ways to improve.

Elon Musk's leadership style is about constantly learning, breaking through barriers, and developing new ways to solve problems. He also has the emotional intelligence to bring the best out of his team, and we can attribute all this to his vast success. However, he has also faced criticism for being a workaholic and an extreme micromanager, both of which are unhealthy leadership traits. Ultimately, the best leaders put their energy into empowering their people to be better so that they can each play their part in driving the success of the business. And perhaps this is what's missing from Musk's approach.

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