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It’s not hard to think of well-known, visionary leaders of the past few decades. Steve Jobs. Sheryl Sandberg. Bill Gates. Warren Buffett. Oprah Winfrey.
However, there’s no denying that Elon Musk deserves a spot near the top of that list.
He’s founded some of the most innovative companies in the world, including X.com (which later became PayPal), SpaceX, and Tesla Motors. If that doesn’t keep him busy enough, he’s also founded lesser-known companies like Neuralink (a neurotechnology company) and The Boring Company (focused on infrastructure and tunnels for transportation).
With such a long list of businesses and achievements under his belt, it’s no wonder that Elon Musk’s leadership style has become an area of interest and fascination. He has a reputation as being equal parts genius and workaholic, and employees are quick to admit that working for him is simultaneously challenging and rewarding.
"He's highly intelligent. He's already 10 steps ahead of you," a former manager at Tesla told Business Insider. "You have to think 10 times more audacious than he does to be able to be successful."
"I feel like I'm 10 times smarter now than when I first joined," a different senior-level employee added.
So, like any leadership style, the Elon Musk leadership style approach comes with some distinct benefits and drawbacks. We’re digging into the details of the leadership style of Elon Musk, and what you can learn from his groundbreaking career.
He believes there’s a better way to do everything, and he sets his sights on constant improvement. He has big ideas and wants to unite his team around his (sometimes outrageous) vision and objectives.
From running an aerospace company that manufactures rockets and other spacecraft to disrupting the electric car market, it only makes sense that a core pillar of Musk’s approach involves out-of-the-box ideas.
Now that you have a high-level overview of how Musk prefers to run his teams and companies, let’s dig into the details.
We’re breaking down five of the most important elements of the Elon Musk leadership style, as well as how those relate to different Fingerprint for Success motivations.
Elon Musk quote: “Other advice I would give is to not blindly follow trends. Question and challenge the status quo. Make sure you understand the fundamental principles of what you’re trying to do before you get into the details, otherwise you could be building on faulty ground.”
Relevant F4S motivations: alternatives, difference, evolution, future, indifference
He builds rockets, disrupts the automotive industry, and has his sights set on colonizing Mars. To say Musk is innovative would be an understatement.
He’s known for being bold with an eye to the future. And, he expects each and every one of his team members to innovate alongside him. Musk’s grandiose view and ambitious goals can be intimidating, but awe-inspiring all the same.
“Most of us can’t conceive these things working; he can’t conceive it failing. Period,” said Jim Cantrell, the first engineer at SpaceX.
Needless to say, when you work under Elon Musk, you won’t rely on existing procedures and a “we’ve always done it this way” attitude. You’ll be expected to think big—and quickly turn those ideas into action.
Elon Musk quote: “The problem is that at a lot of big companies, 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.”
Relevant F4S motivations: internal reference, indifference, alternatives, low focus on procedures
Many former and current employees admit that working for Musk is rigorous and demanding, yet many point to it as a formative experience in their careers.
There’s a reason for that: Musk is a highly-inspiring leader. While some of his ideas are unattainable, he has the ability to get people excited about his ambitions, projects, and plans.
“The thing that makes Elon Elon is his ability to make people believe in his vision,” said Dolly Singh, the former HR head at SpaceX.
Musk is also said to have contagious enthusiasm and energy for his work, which means employees often share his commitment and passion for pursuing their next big idea or source of inspiration.
Elon Musk quote: “Patience is a virtue, and I’m learning patience. It’s a tough lesson.”
Relevant F4S motivations: activity, automatic, initiation
Another word that’s often used to describe Musk? Erratic. He’s known for being opinionated and occasionally even short-tempered, and has gone off on his fair share of rants on Twitter.
His seeming lack of impulse control has gotten him into some hot water every now and then, but it also enables him to move quickly in his businesses—to jump on ideas and nuggets of inspiration without stifling the flame with too much strategy and detail work.
His fast-acting nature offers some benefits in terms of business growth and innovation, but they can also serve as a point of frustration for his team.
As Fast Company reported, “An engineer might spend nine months working 100 hours a week on something because Musk has pushed him to, and then out of nowhere Musk will change his mind and scrap the project.”
Elon Musk quote: “I always have optimism, but I’m realistic. It was not with the expectation of great success that I started Tesla or SpaceX. It’s just that I thought they were important enough to do anyway.”
Relevant F4S motivations: achievement, goal orientation, future, present
You don’t become a billionaire without a hefty dose of drive and ambition, and Musk is no exception. He’s known for setting aggressive—and sometimes even seemingly impossible—goals for his teams and employees.
“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,” said Gwynne Shotwell, the President and Chief Operating Officer of SpaceX. “I’ve always felt like my job was to take these ideas and turn them into company goals, to make them achievable.”
While Musk sets a high bar, he also recognizes that his team needs a high degree of psychological safety in order to pursue those stretch goals. “Failure is an option here,” he’s quoted as saying. “If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”
Elon Musk quote: “Work like hell. I mean you just have to put in 80 to 100 hour weeks every week. [This] improves the odds of success. If other people are putting in 40-hour workweeks and you’re putting in 100-hour workweeks, then 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.”
Relevant F4S motivations: depth, doing, internal reference, activity, use, place
There are plenty of legends and tall tales about Musk’s obsessive personality and workaholic tendencies. He’s been said to sleep on a couch in the Tesla factory and work 80 to 90 hours each week (sometimes even more).
“I have OCD on product-related issues,” he said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “I always see what’s...wrong. Would you want that? When I see a car or a rocket or spacecraft, I only see what’s wrong. I never see what’s right. It’s not a recipe for happiness.”
That means he can be a bit of a micromanager—or even a “nanomanager” as Musk described himself in that same conversation with the Wall Street Journal.
Elon Musk is a complex person, and his leadership style has its intricacies too. In many ways, he’s exhilarating and motivating. In other ways, he’s demanding and intimidating.
Like any other leader, his approach has its upsides and downsides—and there’s plenty to be learned from the way he leads the charge for his employees and numerous companies, including the following lessons:
Elon Musk is by no means a perfect leader, and really, there’s no such thing.
But, with numerous successful companies on his resume and a reputation for developing some of the most groundbreaking products and technologies on the market today, he’s definitely a leader worth examining—but not necessarily emulating.