Entrepreneurs Grind

Elon Musk’s Leadership Style: 10 Strategies That He Uses Daily

As controversial as he is successful, Elon Musk undoubtedly stands out as one of the most innovative—and infamous—visionaries of our time. The CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, who also has The Boring Company, Neuralink, and (basically the first iteration of PayPal) under his belt, may have gained widespread fame due to his public persona, trigger-happy Twitter finger, and a notorious podcast appearance or two, but the serial entrepreneur and engineer owes his success, first and foremost, to his unique approach to leadership. After all, one can’t make billions of dollars without a dedicated team – and Musk has proven that he knows how to build one. 

Elon Musk joins the ranks of Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos for many when considering the 21st century’s most influential CEOs, and like the respective founders of Apple and Amazon, is often cited as having a “transformational leadership” style. The concept is a part of the Full Range Leadership Model, a theory of three distinct leadership styles that vary in accordance with one’s engagement with the people they lead. Unlike those who embrace “laissez-faire” or “transactional” styles, a transformational leader is marked by their ability to inspire, motivate, and work closely with their teams to produce extraordinary results. Some managers hire people to complete boring tasks. Transformational leaders surround themselves with people who want to change the world.

Of course, working with a genius who has grand plans and high expectations isn’t always easy. One former employee at Tesla was quoted in Fast Company as saying both, “It was incredible,” and “I’d never work there again.” Another person who worked under Musk, this time at SpaceX, said of the founder, “We were in the presence of brilliance” and, “It scared me.”

Clearly, “complicated” comes with the territory of a confident and charismatic innovator. But no matter the conflicting opinions of Musk held by both his employees and the public, no one can deny that he is helping to shape the future, one project at a time. From tackling problems head-on and embracing failure to forgoing meetings whenever possible, here are the strategies Musk is known to apply on the daily at all of his companies.

1. He Inspires His Team
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One of the key tenets of transformational leadership is having a vision – and getting others to not only believe in it but inspired enough to help make it happen. “You have to have a very compelling goal for the company,” Musk has explained. “If you put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s talented at a world level, they have to believe that there’s potential for a great outcome and believe in the leader of the company, that you’re the right guy to work with.” 

Dolly Singh, former HR head at SpaceX, has said, “The thing that makes Elon Elon is his ability to make people believe in his vision.” It certainly doesn’t hurt that his sights are set on building a better future and improving industries for the greater good, from automotives to energy to space travel.

“The guy is pure ambition. He’s three or four steps ahead … Most of us can’t conceive these things working; he can’t conceive it failing. Period,” Jim Cantrell, SpaceX’s first engineer, has said of Musk. That kind of confidence and purpose keeps his team inspired.

2. He Sets Stretch Goals

Whether it’s creating brain chips to revolutionize neuroscience or finding a way to colonize Mars, those wildly ambitious, and thus ever-motivating objectives are all a part of Musk’s “stretch goal” strategy. According to the Harvard Business Review, “stretch goals involve radical expectations that go beyond current capabilities and performance,” and are also marked by extreme novelty. And while the Business Review claims that, in the past, “Tesla failed to meet more than 20 of founder Elon Musk’s ambitious projections and missed half of them by nearly a year,” it also notes that  “stretch goals are often viewed as truly important sources of individual and organizational motivation and achievement.”

Gwynne Shotwell, the President and Chief Operating Officer of SpaceX, said at the 2018 TED Conference, “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. I’ve always felt like my job was to take these ideas and turn them into company goals, to make them achievable.”

3. He Challenges The Status Quo

In order to set the bar in every industry he has his hand in, Musk is a firm believer in paving his own way. Obviously, to achieve things that have never been achieved before, you have to do things that have never been done before. “Other advice I would give is to not blindly follow trends,” the entrepreneur and engineer has said. “Question and challenge the status quo.”

One example of his own advice in action? SpaceX’s development of a rocket from “a clean sheet of paper.” According to Shotwell, the scientists and engineers under Musk’s leadership did not have to include any pre-designed technology, but rather looked at the development of the rocket industry to pick the “best ideas and leverage them… without having to design around legacy components that maybe weren’t the most reliable, or were particularly expensive.” This approach allowed SpaceX to create a truly innovative vehicle on its own terms.

4. He Micromanages (Sometimes To A Fault)

Musk is a well-known workaholic, which serves as both a blessing and a curse for his employees. On the one hand, he leads by example—taking an interest in every single aspect of his projects: “If you’re co-founder or CEO you have to do all kinds of tasks you might not want to do … If you don’t do your chores, the company won’t succeed …No task is too menial.”

However, his notorious micromanaging has caused some friction throughout the ranks of his companies. In addition to working over 100 hours a week himself, he’s incredibly hands-on and “obsessive about the details.”

“He demands personal accountability from the people that are closest to the machines,” JB Straubel, the Chief Technical Officer of Tesla Motors, told the New York Times in 2018. “This freaks people out. They are worried that he will come to their area and start asking questions.”

According to former Tesla and SpaceX employee, Spencer Gore, “When [Musk] involves himself in low-level details it’s to enhance execution speed. For some engineers, this can be frustrating, at times heartbreaking—but Elon’s unconventional style is what built the Tesla we all chose to join.”

5. He Hires Smartly
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While some former employees maintain “There [is] only one decision-maker at Tesla, and it’s Elon Musk,” there’s no question that the CEO sees the value in building an excellent team. “Talent is extremely important. It’s like a sports team, the team that has the best individual player will often win but then there’s a multiplier from how those players work together and the strategy they employ.”

And to create that team, Musk is meticulous about hiring. “Hire great people…this is 90 percent of the solution, as hiring wrong can cost you so much,” Musk has said. “We challenge our people leaders to hire people that are better than themselves, therefore making the company better with each hire.”

6. He Embraces Failure

The surprising marker of all effective leaders? They’re not afraid of failure. And let’s just say that Musk has experienced it plenty of times (who can forget the time his “unbreakable” Tesla Cybertruck’s windows cracked—twice?).

However, failure does not derail his visions. Instead, he embraces it as a way to prove that his team is really doing something disruptive: “Failure is an option here. If things are not failing you are not innovating,” he’s said.

Of course, for a perfectionist like Musk, failure is also necessary to identify problems, and then improve. “You should take the approach that you’re wrong. Your goal is to be less wrong.”

7. He Uses Feedback To Find Solutions

When one uses failure as a lesson, it allows them to tackle problems head-on in order to find solutions and finally reach their goal. Musk’s self-proclaimed “single piece of advice” on this matter for both himself and his team is continuous feedback.

“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.”

Even criticism is valuable in Musk’s ventures. “A well thought out critique of whatever you’re doing is as valuable as gold. You should seek that from everyone you can but particularly your friends. Usually, your friends know what’s wrong, but they don’t want to tell you because they don’t want to hurt you,” he has explained. Even if you don’t agree with someone’s critique, “You at least want to listen very carefully to what they say.”

8. He Values Communication

At the core of that aforementioned “feedback loop” is, obviously, communication – something Musk urges his employees to do as efficiently as possible. 

In an internal letter sent to Tesla employees in 2018, the founder and CEO of the car company urged his team to communicate as quickly and directly as possible, and to always ignore any sort of “chain of command.”

“Communication should travel via the shortest path necessary to get the job done, not through the ‘chain of command.’ Any manager who attempts to enforce chain of command communication will soon find themselves working elsewhere,” he wrote in the email.

“A major source of issues is poor communication between depts. The way to solve this is to allow the free flow of information between all levels. If in order to get something done between depts, an individual contributor has to talk to their manager, who talks to a director, who talks to a VP, who talks to another VP, who talks to a director, who talks to a manager, who talks to someone doing the actual work, then super dumb things will happen. It must be ok for people to talk directly and just make the right thing happen.”

9. He Hates Meetings
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That same efficiency model is applied to everything, including every workplace’s least-favorite activity: Meetings. In his internal Tesla email, Musk also waived the need for unnecessary meetings that waste time and don’t result in any meaningful takeaways.

“Excessive meetings are the blight of big companies and almost always get worse over time. Please get off all large meetings, unless you’re certain they are providing value to the whole audience, in which case keep them very short,” he wrote. 

“Also get rid of frequent meetings, unless you are dealing with an extremely urgent matter. Meeting frequency should drop rapidly once the urgent matter is resolved. Walk out of a meeting or drop off a call as soon as it is obvious you aren’t adding value. It is not rude to leave, it is rude to make someone stay and waste their time.”

10. He’s Adaptable

Perhaps one of his biggest strengths – and faults – is Musk’s ability to adapt and change course at the drop of a hat. The billionaire has been known to change his mind based on whatever needs attention at that moment or to change course on projects quickly. 

At SpaceX, Shotwell has described getting the company to catch up with his expectations only to have him throw something new at them – keeping the team constantly on their toes.

The president and COO said, “Once I realized that was his job…and my job was to get us feeling comfortable, I liked my job a lot more,” she said.

But Musk’s erratic decision-making, especially in reaction to things he reads on social media, can sometimes give his employees whiplash. 

“What ultimately triggers him to act and make a decision is what he reads on social media,” one former employee told Business Insider. “When you’re in a business meeting with him, he will pivot the direction of the organization literally overnight. So manufacturing could be a problem today, and as soon as it stops being reported on social media, as soon as it stops being reported in the news, then he’ll move on to whatever the news is claiming the new problem is.”

Nevertheless, his unique approach to management and his fostering of a challenging work environment has clearly led to multibillion-dollar success.

Entrepreneurs Grind

Here’s What Your Favorite Billionaire Drinks

You might think that although some billionaires dress like they’re homeless (see: Almost any picture of Mark Zuckerberg), they secretly treat themselves to lavish yachts or over-the-top meals. Maybe they all meet a secret billionaire speakeasy to drink Winston Cocktails ($12,916 a glass) and smoke Mayan sicars ($507,000 a cigar). 

Then again, maybe not.

1. Jeff Bezos
Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Vanity Fair

Jeff Bezos is known for eating some pretty adventurous food; he once used his breakfast meal as a metaphor for how he runs Amazon: “You’re the octopus that I’m having for breakfast. When I look at the menu, you’re the thing I don’t understand, the thing I’ve never had. I must have the breakfast octopus.”  Although he’s not big on alcohol, he does enjoy a good glass of whiskey. His $23 million mansion in Washington, D.C., is undergoing a $12 million renovation, which includes a whiskey cellar, a walk-in wine room and multiple bars

2. Elon Musk
Joe Rogan Experience

Elon Musk’s history is littered with discarded beer cans and alcohol references. In 2018, he made a joke on Twitter about “Teslaquila,” and even went as far as to file a patent for it. Earlier this year, he tweeted about alcohol being the solution. To what? Maybe having too much money. However, during a Reddit Q&A, Musk wrote that whiskey was his alcohol of choice, which was no surprise to anyone who saw him on Joe Rogan’s podcast last year, where he drank whiskey and smoked weed.

3. Oprah
Oprah / Instagram

Oprah Winfrey is known for her list of favorite things, and year after year, one item keeps topping her list: tequila. Her favorite is Casa Dragones, and she loves it so much that she deemed it the perfect stocking stuffer. She prefers Blanco in her cocktails and Joven for sipping on its lonesome. A close second is her vodka-based cocktail, Maui in December.

4. Kylie Jenner
Kylie Jenner/Youtube

Kylie Jenner has champagne dreams—and they’re kept in her office. She recently unveiled that she has a Moët & Chandon champagne-filled vending machine at the Kylie Cosmetics headquarters. She’s also a fan of tequila and drinking seven shots of Don Julio 1942 from a bedazzled bottle while filming the “Drunk Get Ready with Me: Kylie and Khloe” video for her 22nd birthday. 

5. Richard Branson
Fiona Hanson – PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

Richard Branson has an on-again-off-again relationship with alcohol. He admits that he sometimes drinks a glass of red wine with his meal, drinking it little by little throughout the night. Occasionally, he may enjoy a glass of Necker Island Champagne but usually sticks to cranberry and soda. When Branson feels like he’s been drinking too much, he routinely cuts himself off from alcohol for up to six months. What’s a good gauge of too much? In 2009, he urinated on a fan after too much celebratory drinking after the Grand Prix.

Entrepreneurs Grind

8 Ridiculous Elon Musk Facts

While there are tons of facts you probably don’t know about Tesla CEO Elon Musk, some are more shocking than others. The tech entrepreneur is the wealthiest South African billionaire by net worth, holds three citizenships, has six children and has been married three times. Even more interestingly, Musk hinted several times during his childhood and adolescent years that he would one day become one of the most successful innovators to date.

1. Musk read the entire encyclopedia at age 9

Musk has always been a lover of books. He allegedly read Encyclopedia Britannica from front to back at the age of 9. “I was raised by books. Books, and then my parents,” Musk said in an interview with Rolling Stone. He sometimes even read for 10 hours a day, consuming everything from The Lord of the RingsThe Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the Foundation series all before his teenage years.

2. Musk also taught himself computer programming at the age of 9

Age 9 was a big year for Musk. Aside from reading the encyclopedia, Musk taught himself how to program. Three years later, at only 12 years old, he created a space-themed PC video game called Blastar. He then sold the code for Blastar for $500 to a computer magazine. The game can still be played online.

3. Musk once lived on a budget of $1 a day

When Musk first moved to North America, he made it a priority to save money. With a diet of mostly oranges, hot dogs and pasta, purchased in bulk, he managed to live on $1 a day. Frugality is a smart and common practice for many successful business owners, as it allows them to focus their time and money on their pursuits and not material items and experiences.

4. Musk and his roommate ran a nightclub out of their house in college

During his time at the University of Pennsylvania, Musk and his roommate lived in a large off-campus house. The two agreed to turn it into a nightclub to pay the rent. The nightclub attracted as many as 1,000 guests per night—a true entrepreneurial success.

Lily Lawrence/Getty Images for Oceanic Preservation Society

5. Musk has signed the Giving Pledge

Musk is among a few business moguls who have pledged to donate the majority of their wealth to philanthropic efforts. Other signees include Bill Gates, Sir Richard Branson, Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg. Before even signing the pledge, Musk organized his own charity, the Musk Foundation. According to the website, grants are made in support of renewable energy research and advocacy; human space exploration research and advocacy; pediatric research; and science and engineering education.

6. Musk owns a submarine car from a James Bond film

Musk is known for owning a vehicle a bit cooler than a Tesla—an actual submarine car. He purchased the “Wet Nellie,” a Lotus submarine car prop from The Spy Who Loved Me. It’s been reported that he plans to convert it into a real car that transforms into a submarine. The possibilities are endless with this tech inventor, and we could all possibly be driving submarines created by Musk in the future.

7. Musk was the inspiration for Tony Stark

It makes total sense that Musk is the inspiration for Tony Stark. Stark, also known as Ironman, is a superhero and serial entrepreneur, similar to Musk, just without the superpowers. Robert Downey Jr., the actor behind the character, reportedly wanted to sit down with Musk to better understand how to take on the role. Parts of Iron Man 2 were also filmed at SpaceX and Musk made a cameo appearance in the film.

8. Musk dropped out of Stanford on his second day

Similar to other top business owners and entrepreneurs, Musk dropped out of college to start his own company. He was pursuing a graduate degree in physics but left Stanford University after his second day as a student. Seeing an opportunity to hone in on the internet boom, Musk created Zip2, which provided online newspapers with maps and business directories. He sold the company for $307 million in 1999.