Walter Isaacson’s near-700-page biography of Elon Musk covers a lot of ground. We get many stories of the remarkable innovator, how he revolutionized at least two industries, automobiles and rockets, and his controversial purchase and overhaul of Twitter. Great reading – but what can a leader learn from Isaacson’s account?
That’s a key question because, in the end, the author concludes that Musk – a larger-than-life entrepreneur, a freak of nature in his willingness to accept, even seek out, extraordinary risk – is a complete package: you can’t get the relentless, brilliant innovation without the unfiltered, insensitive, and sometimes plain awful treatment of people around him.
Yet, although there is much to learn from Musk’s innovation record, his abrasive personality is not a necessary condition for success. When my team and I researched the factors for perpetual innovation from 2006 to 2022, Tesla was indeed among the best, but other firms had elements of what Tesla did. You don’t have to emulate Musk’s abrasiveness to reap the benefits of his example: a move of 20 to 30% in his direction can accomplish a great amount.
Isaacson effectively describes Musk’s maniacal commitment to saving civilization through electrification, space travel, and other technologies and how these emerged from his childhood fascination with science fiction and video games. Trumping love of money or status this commitment enables him to embrace extraordinary risk, even suing his primary customer at one point.
But omitted from the book are the crucial second-order effects of his commitments, notably the galvanizing effects on people around him. For all his divisiveness on social media, Musk has successfully won over talented people to his goals, creating innovative, profitable companies along the way. The bold pursuit of significant challenges also helps.
Even if most managers are less obsessional than Musk, they can learn from his pursuit of an existential purpose that clarifies strategic decisions and attracts highly engaged colleagues to the cause. Most corporate purpose statements are vague or feel-good window dressing, with little actual traction in the organization. Either find something with an edge, or don’t bother.
Isaacson notes Musk’s need for drama, especially after success in overcoming an obstacle. He would “yank the alarm bells and force a fire drill,…find something to turn into a crisis.” It’s suggested that that’s a problem, but it’s actually common in serial entrepreneurs, which is why they move on once they succeed (or fail) with a startup. Leaders aren’t usually entrepreneurs but can still gain a lot from a startup mindset.
Contrary to popular belief, startups rarely depend on testing and succeeding with a specific product. Instead, they attack a market segment with an idea and quickly pivot as they learn about both. As Isaacson shows, Musk didn’t set out to build a rocket company – he just wanted to get NASA and the existing industry moving toward Mars. Tesla’s founders didn’t target mainstream passenger automobiles until Musk arrived and made the crucial decision to pursue the luxury market. That willingness to pivot is vital, but all too rare.
Big companies can do something similar, not just with Agile’s minimum viable product approach, but by showing openness and flexibility toward the market. It just takes effort and focus. As Amazon’s Jeff Bezos told shareholders in 2016, “We can have the scope and capabilities of a large company and the spirit and heart of a small one. But we must choose it.”
Where can ordinary leaders get that effort and focus? Here’s an element missing from the biography and probably from Musk’s own career. Amid the constant innovation and crises, it’s easy to forget that even at Tesla and SpaceX, a moderate amount of the work is straightforward. Engineers and designers must make the innovations practical and commercial with all the little adjustments that customers only notice when they’re not there. The slower pace is also a good time to begin deliberating big changes.
For most humans and organizations, such work is restorative, allowing normal office hours and work-life balance. Musk prefers “hard-core” dedication that squeezes out non-work ties, epitomized by the pillow he keeps under his desk for all-nighters. In recent years, his companies have lost many talented people who can’t keep up with his extraordinary stamina and willingness to forgo ordinary human relationships, only partially offset by new recruits attracted by his charismatic commitments.
Instead of continual hard-core, other organizations can adjust their tempo to save up energy for the tough periods. The corporate default is for everything to move at the same pace, but perpetual innovators alternate between periods of frenetic activity and quiet times of supportive work. During the latter they also do something different: they stay alert, looking for opportunities and threats.
To do all that, managers must fight relentlessly against creeping bureaucracy that focuses people’s attention internally during slow periods and limits their freedom to maneuver in the fast ones. Microsoft took off in the late 2010s only after CEO Satya Nadella removed many bureaucratic structures that had built up over time.
Isaacson mentions Musk’s systematic willingness to challenge requirements but neglects how that plays out within organizations. His companies operate with a different sense of hierarchy. To solve tough problems, Musk tells employees to ask for help from anyone with the crucial expertise, irrespective of rank. No matter how outlandish the request, dismissing someone with what Musk calls an “unproductive no” can be a firing offense.
Ordinary leaders can similarly loosen hierarchies by resisting the pull of rank and focusing on solving the problem, not structures and status to be respected.
Besides these four areas, Isaacson’s engaging story falls short in showing the broader effects of Musk’s potent mix of generosity, ferocity, and courage. It’s not just that he combines enormous energy, engineering brilliance, and a high tolerance of risk – he puts those gifts to highly productive use through effective leadership.
There is no reason why ordinary leaders can’t learn from his examples to make their organizations more innovative. They might not revolutionize industries, but they’ll do themselves and society a favor by creating value in these disruptive times.
Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson Simon & Schuster, 688 pages
About the Author:
Behnam Tabrizi has taught “Leading Organizational Transformation” at Stanford University and its executive programs for over 25 years and consulted on innovative transformational initiatives with thousands of CEOs and leaders. His latest WSJ bestseller book is Going on Offense: A Leader’s Playbook for Perpetual Innovation (IdeaPress Publishing).