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Influential Leader Case Study: Elon Musk

Updated on March 21, 2020
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Ryan is a student at Drexel University, studying Mechanical Engineering with a minor in Engineering Leadership.

Elon Musk
Elon Musk | Source

Who is Elon Musk?

A once unheard-of individual that in recent years has become almost a household name, goes by the name of Elon Musk. As the founder and CEO of SpaceX, co-founder and CEO of Tesla, inc., founder of The Boring Company, co-founder of NeuraLink and OpenAI, it seems like Elon Musk not only can lead companies - he can visualize and construct almost any far-fetched idea and bring it to reality. This did not come easily, as both SpaceX and Tesla were bankrupt in 2008, but pulled through the so-called “valley of death” that many startups go through to become two internationally famous companies. While his name is the most famous to come out of these organizations and endeavors, they rely on the hard-working, dedicated, motivated individuals who are putting hard work in every single day. As it turns out, Musk was the perfect person to push these people to work towards nearly impossible tasks.

Superhuman Work Ethic

The first trait of his that many credit to his success is his almost superhuman work ethic and drive. Elon Musk famously once claimed that people should want to work 80 to 100 hours a week, going as far as saying “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week”(Elon Musk, 2018). While this can seem like an insensitive thing to say, showcasing the difference between a CEO and an average worker, Musk can certainly back up his claim. In November 2018, Musk said in an interview that he worked 120 hours a week while “everyone” in Tesla worked 100 hours a week to get the Tesla Model 3 to meet production goals. While this undoubtedly ruffled some feathers within the company, many Tesla employees said they preferred to work 70 hours a week. This brings to mind a quote by Simon Sinek, a motivational speaker and author, during his TEDx Talk in 2010. Simon said “we follow those who lead not because we have to, but because we want to. We follow those who lead not for them, but for ourselves”(TED, 2010). Elon Musk’s leadership involves leading by example. His employees don’t feel obligated to work extra hours every week, they want to. Why? Because he did it first. He knows what it’s like to have the late nights and early mornings, and isn’t asking them to do it out of greed. He knows more than most of the effect of that hard work and determination, and his actions prove that to his employees. This leads them to a common goal, and motivates them for the future.

"Nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week" - Elon Musk

The Dream of the Future

Building off that idea, the dream of the future, is Elon Musk’s second great leadership quality. His futuristic goals and aspirations inspire the pictures he paints to not only his employees but to the rest of the world as well. The public sees a man on his way to making humans an interplanetary species, a man who’s combatting fossil fuels by making our transportation industry electric, a man who’s leading the research into making computers smarter (but not too smart). These vivid, extraordinary pictures are what inspires people. Any person interested in space always pays attention a little more when Elon Musk and SpaceX are mentioned in the same sentence, and that is due to the image Musk paints of himself. A man on the frontier of exploration, urging others to come with him in exploring the unknown. Public opinion of Musk is high, and people are always wondering what he’s going to do next. To quote Simon Sinek again, “Leadership requires two things: a vision of the world that does not yet exist and the ability to communicate it”(Sinek, Start with Why). Elon has a vision of how he wants the world to be, and his ability to portray that to those around him is one of his biggest strengths. This applies even more so for his employees, who are on the front lines of his dream, his vision gives them something to work for. At this point, they are no longer working to get paid, but are working to accomplish this shared dream. They are working not for Elon Musk, but for themselves. They get to be a vital part of this record-breaking, glass ceiling-shattering, making-the-impossible-possible dream that they all share. That is why Elon Musk is not only a great leader, but a generational trailblazer that the entire world is striving to follow into whatever the future holds.

He Launched a Car Into Space

Elon Musk also shows a vital part of leadership in his actions that seem to shock the world - have fun with it, and enjoy what you do. Doing what you enjoy lets you develop a passion for it, and when others see the passion you have for a project, it becomes infectious and is shown in what they do. About two years ago, in February of 2018, Musk did something absolutely ridiculous, simply because he wanted to, and because he could. He launched a car into space. While this certainly showcased SpaceX’s abilities and gave free marketing points to Tesla, the main point it drove home to viewers was that Elon Musk does what he wants. What he wants is to have fun, and he shows that it’s possible to have fun while at work. Recently, Tesla revealed the Cybertruck, a weird, angular, tank of a truck that looks nothing like what we’ve seen in the industry before. Musk went on later to admit that they got inspiration from futuristic games, such as Halo’s iconic Warthog vehicle. After an initial sense of bewilderment, people all over the internet asked Musk why he wanted to put such a different (sometimes ugly!) looking car on the market. While there were a variety of reasons, such as setting himself apart from the crowd, there was one specific reason that has resonated in everything he does. The truck looks like the future. It looks like something out of a 90’s movie’s idea of what 2050 would look like. That reveal, in that instant, showed the brilliant leader that Musk is. He shares what the rest of the public is thinking - it doesn’t look like we’re a futuristic, technologically advanced society. Every new truck has looked pretty much the same for the past couple decades. Similarly, phones, computers, and most technology looks almost exactly the same as it has for years. Each “new” version is either slightly smaller or larger, only claiming to be faster. Elon Musk is creating a future that gets us as excited as the movies, a future where we can look around and say “Wow, look how far we’ve come”. The Tesla Cybertruck was just one example of that.

Elon Musk's Tesla in Space
Elon Musk's Tesla in Space | Source

Recovery from Failure

Another driving point of Elon Musk’s leadership is his remarkable recoveries from failure. A leader that knows what it’s like to fail and be able to guide others out of those tough times is one that people want to follow. As mentioned before, he had not one, but two companies bankrupt at the same time. He persistently stuck with what he believed, and was able to successfully push through to recover and grow. This also adds a layer of wisdom to him as a leader, as he knows what to do and not to do in order to make the organizations that he is a part of the best that they can possibly be.

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