Over the past decade, Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and CEO Tesla Motors, has sealed his status as one of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs. In the process, he’s gained an almost cult-like following with almost seven times the entire population of New York City following his every word on Twitter. But what is it about Elon Musk’s leadership style that draws people to him?
The answer is simple: Musk set his sights on the nearly impossible. Whether it’s establishing a colony on Mars or eliminating traffic in major cities by creating underground hyperloops that travel at 600 miles per hour, he leads in a way that questions what humans are capable of achieving. Watching his vision come to life is both inspirational and motivational. It makes some people want to dig their heels into the ground and tackle the world’s greatest problems with the same level of tenacity.
When it comes to guiding a company, there’s a lot that startup owners and executives can learn from Elon Musk’s leadership philosophy. Find out more about the way he leads and how to replicate his best leadership qualities.
What Is Elon Musk’s Leadership Style?
A person’s leadership style is how they lead themselves and their team. In total, there are seven different ones: democratic leadership, autocratic leadership, transformational leadership, transactional leadership, laissez-faire leadership, charismatic leadership, and servant leadership. While a person can show traits in all of the leadership styles, one leadership style is usually more dominant than the others.
Elon Musk’s leadership style is transformational since it focuses on innovation and achieving large scale goals. This leadership style’s strengths are innovative thinking, analysis, problem-solving, planning, and strategy execution. In short, transformational leaders don’t wait for the world to change—they make a plan and motivate others to join them so they can achieve their vision. Musk joins the ranks of changemakers like Steve Jobs (Apple), Reed Hastings (Netflix), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), and Brian Chesky (Airbnb).
Top 5 Elon Musk Transformational Leadership Quotes
- “We will not stop until every car on the road is electric.”
- “If you get up in the morning and think the future is going to be better, it is a bright day. Otherwise, it’s not.”
- “There have to be reasons that you get up in the morning and you want to live. Why do you want to live? What’s the point? What inspires you? What do you love about the future? If the future does not include being out there among the stars and being a multi-planet species, I find that incredibly depressing.”
- “Really, the only thing that makes sense is to strive for greater collective enlightenment.”
- “People work better when they know what the goal is and why. It is important that people look forward to coming to work in the morning and enjoy working.”
Autocratic and Transactional Leadership Traits
Elon Musk’s leadership qualities are awe-inspiring but can also verge on being borderline toxic. Like Steve Jobs, he is highly respected and revered for his genius, but that doesn’t change the fact he’s still notoriously difficult to work with. This is because he also shows signs of being an autocratic leader and a transactional leader. Autocratic leaders want sole authority in their companies and rule with an iron fist, while transactional leaders can be cold and daunting because they view work as a business transaction. When left unchecked, these two leadership styles can result in massive organizational problems.
In 2018, Wired released an exposé about the cutthroat work environment at Tesla. “Everyone in Tesla is in an abusive relationship with Elon,” a past executive told writer Charles Duhigg. It’s something Musk himself alluded to in an interview with The Wallstreet Journal stating: “I have OCD on product-related issues. I always see what’s . . . wrong. Would you want that?” He also described himself to the interviewer as a “nano-manager.” A former employee backed up this sentiment in a Business Insider article, explaining his Tesla management style was one that showed control freak tendencies. “There was only one decision-maker at Tesla, and it’s Elon Musk,” the anonymous insider said.
Nevertheless, Musk isn’t a ruthless, task-oriented dictator—he’s obsessed with delivering excellent results. In the same Business Insider article, another former team member explained that even when there were disagreements with Musk, he was right 90 percent of the time. The employee said the experience was challenging, but they came out of it “10 times smarter.”
Elon Musk’s transformational, autocratic, and transactional leadership style goes to show he’s in business to produce results, not make friends. He demands excellence because it is what drives transformation.
How to Implement Elon Musk’s Leadership Style
So, how can business owners and executives implement the positive aspects of Elon Musk as a leader at Tesla, SpaceX, The Boring Company, and Neuralink? Find out more about his most endearing leadership qualities and how to use them to your advantage below.
1. Let Failure Motivate You
“Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”
Elon Musk is no stranger to failure. Around Christmas 2008, he almost lost Tesla and SpaceX at the same time. Even during these dark times, he still demonstrated impeccable leadership skills that motivated his team to keep pushing forward. In a post on Quora, Dolly Singh, the former head of talent acquisition at SpaceX, wrote that after the loss of Falcon One in 2008, “A failure in leadership would have destroyed us not only from the eyes of the press or potential consumers but it would have destroyed us internally.” Knowing this, Musk addressed his team with a motivating speech that described their mission and the fact that they would not give up despite this setback. “Within moments, the energy of the building went from despair and defeat to a massive buzz of determination . . . in a matter of not more than 5 seconds,” she explained. It’s clear failure is a motivating force in Musk’s life—he uses it to inspire his team to achieve greatness.
When leading through failure:
- Don’t dwell on the negatives. Instead, find the lesson in failure and implement it to the next iteration of work.
- Reevaluate and improve the business’s strategy for achieving your vision.
- Communicate the purpose of changes with your team.
- Prepare employees for failure by teaching them how to recover when it happens. You can even write a manual on how to handle failure at your company. Leading by example is another great option. Show team members how to take ownership of mistakes and pivot away from setbacks.
- Create a safe environment to fail by destigmatizing the shame that comes with failure. Discuss the importance of failure and how it leads to progress, growth, and innovation. Additionally, open up lines of communication around mistakes and discuss ways to improve. Be sure to lead this exercise by sharing your own failures and how you rise above them.
Learn more about how to overcome the fear of failure.
2. Become a Master at Problem Solving
“Boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there . . .”
As a transformational leader, Elon Musk focuses on solving the world’s greatest problems. The unique way he thinks about challenges is what allows him to do this. In a TED conversation with Chris Anderson, he states he looks at problems from a different perspective than most people. Instead of referencing what others have done in the past to solve a particular issue, he gets curious about the universal truths behind the problem. Disinterested in others’ assumptions, he asks questions until the root of the problem reveals itself. This helps him determine how to approach the issue and create an innovative solution.
To problem solve like Elon Musk:
- Write out what you think you know about the challenge in front of you. Is what you’ve written an assumption or a universal truth? If it’s an assumption, get curious about why people formed this opinion. For example, is there a particular boundary those in your industry say can’t be crossed? Is this really true, or is it just something people think can’t be done?
- Get to the core of the problem by using the 5 Whys method developed by Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Industries. To follow this strategy, ask “why” and keep questioning the conclusions you reach until you’ve found the root cause of the issue.
- Research the problem and consult with leaders and experts who can help you make an informed decision.
- Reverse engineer the outcomes of your potential solutions to make the best choice.
- Establish an action plan and monitor the success of your resolution.
Find out more about becoming an expert at problem solving.
3. Develop a Hunger for Knowledge
“One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree—make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”
When discussing his childhood, Elon Musk tells Rolling Stone, “I was raised by books. Books, and then my parents.” Kimbal Musk validated this point, describing in a Bloomberg article that his brother read two books a day on various disciplines as a teenager. Like many famous business owners, such as Warren Buffett, Mark Cuban, Oprah Winfrey, and Bill Gates, Musk has spent a large portion of his life reading and obtaining knowledge to guide his companies to success.
In terms of gaining knowledge, Musk advises people to:
- Study work that establishes a foundational understanding of the subject.
- Once this is complete, venture out into various subcategories to obtain more knowledge about this interest. For example, if you want to learn more about leadership, start with a book on what leadership is before diving into a comprehensive review of the Situational Leadership® model.
- Stay curious and ask questions to gain more insight.
- Develop a “communication loop” where the team gives one another feedback.
Get started by reading these 15 leadership books.
4. Be Aggressive About Achieving the Business’s Goals
“I don’t create companies for the sake of creating companies, but to get things done.”
Elon Musk’s leadership style, transformational leadership, focuses on creating real positive change in the world. This type of leader is action-oriented. Instead of sitting around and philosophizing about how to change the world, they outline and execute a strategy that makes their vision a reality. For example, the Tesla management style is centered around meeting company goals. Leaders place a heavy emphasis on deliverables because, for the business to stay alive, grow, and fulfill Musk’s vision, team members must complete these objectives. The same can be said about his other organizations. At the heart of Musk’s businesses is hard work that achieves a meaningful purpose.
To achieve goals like Elon Musk:
- Set challenging objectives that help push the boundaries of what people can accomplish.
- Spend at least one day a week working on the company’s business strategy.
- Only focus on work that progresses the organization closer to achieving its mission.
- Free up time to work on the business by delegating duties that do not require your attention.
- Schedule out reasonable completion dates for all work.
- Hire a project manager who coordinates with everyone on the team so work gets finished on time.
Discover more tips on goal setting.
Avoid the Pitfalls of Elon Musk’s Leadership Style
Emulating Elon Musk’s best leadership traits can vastly improve a business owner’s leadership abilities. Yet, as previously explained, there are a few behaviors you’ll want to avoid. This is especially true when it comes to micromanaging employees and creating work environments that cause work anxiety and work burnout (for both leaders and team members). These issues create toxic workplaces, contribute to low employee retention rates, and sink budgets due to constant turnover.
To combat these issues:
- Develop a work culture that encourages work-life balance. For example, if you see an employee working 90 hours a week, send them home.
- Try following Amazon leadership principles to work on creating trust between yourself and your team members. Discuss expectations, show them how you would like duties performed, teach them how to do these, and help them as they grow into their new role.
- Recognize and acknowledge people for all of their hard work. Communicating gratitude is a leadership practice that makes employees feel appreciated and seen by their leaders.
- Learn how to be more charismatic as a leader, even when this isn’t your strong suit.
Interested in learning more about Elon Musk and his companies? Learn how he’s changing the landscape of manufacturing with the Tesla Gigafactory or check out this article next: “Who is Elon Musk? A Look Inside the Innovator’s Life.”