I read Walter Isaacson’s new book Elon Musk for two primary reasons. First, to see what we can learn about Musk’s leadership, and second, because I had enjoyed the author’s book Steve Jobs. At the time of the book’s release, Musk was amazingly running six companies: Tesla, SpaceX and its Starlink unit, Twitter (now X), The Boring Company, Neuralink, and X.AI. One of Musk’s primary goals is to colonize Mars, so humans can survive if and when Earth becomes uninhabitable due to climate change. He is also striving for “Full Self-Driving” vehicles, which he promises will revolutionize the world. Isaacson tells us that a core question about Musk is whether his bad behavior can be separated from the all-in drive that has made him successful.
The book discusses Musk having Asperger’s, a common name for a form of autism-spectrum disorder that can affect a person’s social skills, relationships, emotional connectivity, and self-regulation. Regarding Musk’s leadership, his innovation, vision, and results are to be admired – his people skills not so much. How much of the latter is due to his Asperger’s is hard to tell. In some ways, his leadership reminded me of that of Steve Jobs.
Musk has had a lifelong addiction to video games. Strategy games – those played on a board and then those for computers – have become central to Musk’s life. Isaacson writes that one key to understanding Musk—his intensity, focus, competitiveness, die-hard attitudes, and love of strategy—is through his passion for video games.
I am a proponent of servant leadership, where the leader is there for their people, not the people for the leader. That type of leader serves their teams. I have written much about servant leadership, including this article.
Musk is not portrayed as a servant leader. But what can we learn about his leadership from Isaacson’s book? First, let’s look at aspects of his leadership not to emulate:
- He does not like, nor was he good at, working for other people.
- From the very beginning of his career, Musk was a demanding manager, contemptuous of the concept of work-life balance.
- At Zip2 and every subsequent company, he drove himself relentlessly all day and through much of the night, without vacations, and he expected others to do the same. His only indulgence was allowing breaks for intense video-game binges.
- He genuinely did not care if he offended or intimidated the people he worked with, as long as he drove them to accomplish feats they thought were impossible.
- One of Musk’s management tactics, then as later, was to set an insane deadline and drive colleagues to meet it.
- Elon is just not a very nice person and didn’t treat people well.
- He has no natural filter to restrain his responses.
- Musk had a resistance to regulations. He did not like to play by other people’s rules.
- When he was not in survival-or-die mode, he felt unsettled. It prompted him to launch surges, stir up dramas, throw himself into battles he could have bypassed, and bite off new endeavors.
- In times of emotional darkness, Musk throws himself into his work, maniacally.
- Comradery is dangerous. It makes it hard for people to challenge each other’s work. There is a tendency to not want to throw a colleague under the bus. That needs to be avoided.
What are some things we can emulate about Musk’s leadership:
- His willingness, even desire, to take risks.
- A pattern was set: try new ideas and be willing to blow things up.
- Musk’s tolerance for stress is high.
- Although stubborn, Musk can be brought around by evidence.
- When hiring, look for people with the right attitude. Skills can be taught. Attitude changes require a brain transplant.
- Musk has stated “I give people hardcore feedback, mostly accurate, and I try not to do it in a way that’s ad hominem,” he says. “I try to criticize the action, not the person. We all make mistakes. What matters is whether a person has a good feedback loop, can seek criticism from others, and can improve.”
Musk’s leadership philosophy includes “the algorithm”, which has these five commandments:
- Question every requirement.
- Delete any part or process you can.
- Simplify and optimize.
- Accelerate cycle time.
Other aspects of Musk’s leadership that Isaacson tells us about are:
- When annoyed, Musk often challenges people with very specific questions.
- Musk made it a rule to be wary of anyone whose confidence was greater than their competence.
- Musk believed in a fail-fast approach to building rockets. Take risks. Learn by blowing things up. Revise. Repeat. “We don’t want to design to eliminate every risk,” he said. “Otherwise, we will never get anywhere.”
- Musk has a rule about responsibility: every part, every process, and every specification needs to have a name attached. He can be quick to personalize blame when something goes wrong.
We are told that by someone who knows him well that Musk is wired differently than others, and that Asperger’s makes you a very difficult person. He is not good at reading the room. His emotional comprehension is very different from the average human, and we should keep his psychological makeup in mind when judging him.
So, what can we learn about Musk’s leadership from Isaacson’s book. It’s clear that he is not a servant leader. In the end, we can go back to Isaacson’s core question about whether Musk’s bad behavior can be separated from the all-in drive that has made him successful. I would agree with the author when he states that one can admire a person’s good traits and decry the bad ones. Discernment is needed.