There’s no doubt that Elon Musk’s vision for electric cars, space travel, ground transportation and other fields are the product of great imagination. And his ability to not only come up with the ideas but to execute them is the result of a master at sharing his vision and engaging people in it. But it’s not all smooth sailing. There’s also erratic behaviour, a social media profile that has landed him in trouble and curious management practices.
Last week, I took a look at Microsoft management over the last few decades as part of a look at one of the most critical challenges facing our world today – leadership. I’ve been thinking about Elon Musk and what sort of leader he is.
Elon Musk’s Big Wins
There’s no doubt that the Tesla car has changed our expectation of what an electric car can be. Long range, great performance and some really interesting applications of technology have raised the bar for all car companies.
SpaceX is also trying to democratise space travel and has the grand goal of colonising Mars. I had the chance to visit the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida last year and Musk’s influence on space travel is evident. Not just in the rockets his company has made and successfully flown, executing missions NASA has never managed, but also in how it has changed the commentary on how public/private partnerships work and the importance of achieving its goals in a cost effective way.
Then there’s Hyperloop. Although the jury is still out one whether it will be an effective transport solution, by making the project open source Musk has stimulated a new ecosystem of innovation.
All of these things highlight that Musk is a great visionary with the ability to motivate people to raise their expectations and do more than they thought possible.
Alongside these achievements, there’s the other side of Musk – the erratic Mr Hyde to his visionary Dr Jekyll.
Following meetings in early 2017, Musk tweeted that he was considering taking the company private.
Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 7, 2018
Perhaps this was in response to numerous negative media reports regarding job cuts, sustained losses and production issues the company was facing and Musk’s frustration with the negative media he was facing at the time.
Bloomberg has published a timeline of this blip in Tesla’s history. All told, from the first tweet till the process ended took two weeks.
It’s worth noting that that two-week debacle resulted in Musk losing the chairmanship of the Tesla board and having to pay US$20M in fines.
Back in August last year, the world watched as a junior soccer team was trapped and subsequently rescued from a flooded cave in Thailand. Musk showed up, uninvited, during a complex rescue mission to offer a specially made submersible that he said could be used to navigate the dangerous underwater terrain.
His offer was refused for a number of reasons.
Incredibly, he then accused one of the rescuers, British diver Vernon Unsworth, of being a paedophile. When he was challenged on this he wrote a letter to a Buzzfeed reporter saying “I suggest that you call people you know in Thailand, find out what’s actually going on and stop defending child rapists, you fucking asshole”.
Then there’s Musk smoking a joint during a podcast least year.
Is it illegal? No, as he was in California where recreational marijuana use his OK. But was it a “smart” thing to do given the recent history of the tweets about going private and his accusations of paedophilia?
So, on one hand we have a visionary leader who imagines a very different world and on the other we see some erratic behaviour.
One of the closest parallels I can see is Steve Jobs. In the 1980s, Jobs’ behaviour was the stuff of legend. And while the movie The Pirates of Silicon Valley takes some dramatic liberties there are enough stories around about Jobs pushing employees in a way that would be considered illegal today and treating people poorly.
Yet, after being ousted from Apple and then returning in the late 1990s, he was a changed man. He was able to balance the visionary with a more disciplined approach to business.
Perhaps what Musk needs is some time off?
Visionary And/Or Leader?
Elon Musk is a visionary with great imagination and the ability to bring people along the journey as he conceptualises big ideas and finds ways to execute them.
But his public persona is erratic, churlish and thin-skinned. These are not qualities that will instil confidence in investors and have already drawn the ire of regulators. Last year, the company’s chief accounting officer Dave Morton resigned after a month saying public attention and the fast pace of the role exceeded what he expected.
That was in the midst of the SEC case and Musk’s comments in Thailand. It way well be that Musk mellows, just as Jobs did during his enforced hiatus from Apple. But at the moment his leadership of Tesla and his other interests seems to be unhelpful.
What can we learn from Elon Musk?
Be courageous: Having a vision or idea is easy. But putting it out to the world is much harder. Musk had the courage to put his big ideas out there.
Think before you speak: Many of the issues Musk faced last year came about because he reflexively reacted to situations. And he didn’t think of the consequences of his words. Before you say something on the public record – think about it.
Resilience: There are times when people in the public eye face criticism. In some cases this is justified, in others it’s not. Good leaders don’t argue with their critics. They engage with them, try to understand where the criticism comes from and seek to educate and publicise their side of the story.