Elon Musk: An Analysis of Leadership

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Elon Musk is a man known for a lot of things. From PayPal to Tesla, to his more ambitious venture of SpaceX, he is known for taking leaps and doing things that no one has dared to do before. Taking these leaps has given him the ability to lead in ways that not many people can in the business world. He is able to empower his people, getting them to do things that no one thought were possible. He is known for many companies, and many different ventures, and with each venture, he is able to mold his people into a team and get them to work efficiently and effectively.

Elon Reeve Musk, born June 28, 1971, was born in Pretoria, South Africa. He lived there for 17 years, living with his family until moving to Canada to attend the Canadian Queens University right before his 18th birthday. However, after two years of attendance, he ended up transferring to the University of Pennsylvania, to receive two degrees, in economics and physics. These two degrees would prove to help him immensely in his business adventures. He also went on to begin a Ph.D. in applied physics, however, he dropped out to begin a career in entrepreneurship. He and his brother co-founded the internet data guide Zip2, which was created during the buzz of the internet craze, when the internet was just becoming a big thing. He went on to sell this company to Compaq for $307 million, with Musk receiving $22 million, which he later put towards his other ventures.

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From Zip2, Musk went on to acquire what is now PayPal, a money-transferring business that focused on easy money transferring on the internet. He founded the online company X.com, offering financial services, and then merged with PayPal in 2001. Musk however was removed from his leadership position, due to his desire to take the company in ways other than that of company leadership.

His next venture, and his most profound and impacting venture, in my opinion, was SpaceX. He founded SpaceX due to the realization that he did not need to buy old rockets in order to get things into space. Using his business and economics knowledge, he concluded that he could build rockets for 3% of the actual sales price of one. Basing off of this, Musk founded SpaceX, a company in which he still resides as the CEO. This is the company that I believe is what shaped him as a leader, and what allowed him to use unique yet very successful leadership methods which I will go over later on in this essay. SpaceX was a company that was designed to better rocket technology, utilizing re-useable, therefore, highly cost-effective rockets to ship payloads into space. Musk is dedicated to bettering humanity for the better through his explorations in space, with ambitions to put man on mars with a colony formed by 2040.

Finally, another one of his prominent business ventures is Telsa. After hopping on board, a year after its founding, Musk has taken tesla to new levels of energy. After investing in Telsa early in 2003, Musk became CEO of the company. Telsa has a focus on creating safe, affordable, and practical electric vehicles that are readily available to the public. Through the use of unique but effective leadership models, Musk is able to create an environment that his employees want to work in, boosting productivity and morale within the company.

Musk has also invested in a few other companies, and created a few more, typically trying to solve an issue that he faces in his day-to-day life. One of these is called The Boring Company. Musk created this company with the intention to shorten the distance between cities, utilizing highly efficient sleds running in a partial vacuum, allowing for incredibly efficient transportation. Another one of his ventures, going along with The Boring Company, is Hyperloop, which is a system of high-speed public transportation, which utilizes the tunnels that would be dug by his Boring Company. Both of these are theoretical and are still in design phases, however, I believe that it shows Elon Musk’s intentions to better society in a way that doesn’t increase the money in his wallet. He has said before that he didn’t start his company SpaceX because he thought that building rockets would be fun, or that it would be great for his portfolio, but rather to boost society to new heights (literally), and to leave a lasting mark on society that he believes will better mankind.

Elon Musk has had much success with his entrepreneurial ventures, and I believe that a good portion of this is due to the fact that he is a very creative-thinking leader. He doesn’t fit exactly into one type or form of leadership, however adapting his own style and learning from what works and what doesn’t from within the multiple companies and opportunities he has had. I believe that this is something that can benefit the military greatly, as we are sometimes only taught one or two ways of leadership, when in reality, multiple types or even types that haven’t been utilized yet may be the better way to motivate and complete the mission timely and effectively. Creative leadership, by definition, is developing and utilizing innovative and creative ideas, through the shared ambition of changing the world for the better (thnk.org). By utilizing creative leadership, leaders are attempting to change the future for the better, embracing change, and seeking opportunities to make these changes everywhere possible. Creative thinking stems from transformational leadership, pushing the leaders to empower their people to accomplish set goals.

One thing Musk is clearly not afraid to do is be transparent. He believes, that in order to push your people to do what they need to get done, you have to let them know what the issues are in the first place. A great example of this with Elon Musk would be his straightforward announcement that Tesla was quite behind on the sales of their new Model 3 electric vehicle. He knew that it was a problem, yet he put it out there not because he wanted to let the public know that he isn’t afraid to speak his mind about issues that his company/section is having. I believe this can be translated to the military workspace in ways that will benefit our airmen, such as setting up goals and if those goals aren’t met, then being upfront about what isn’t going right and what needs to be done to fix and meet these set goals. Not being afraid to talk about the hard stuff is better than being afraid to speak about it and then nothing ever gets done or very inefficiently getting done.

Elon Musk has also always been a very hand on person, always wanting to get into dirty of his work. He consistently talks about falling asleep on the factory floors and working sleepless nights trying to solve Tesla’s most frustrating issues. He is not afraid to get into the dirt with his employees, which I think is a big thing for leadership. If you can prove to your team that you are able to do what they are doing and be alongside them in case they ever need help, they will be much more willing to work for you, because they know that you have their back when things get tough. According to Elon Musk, he doesn’t even have a desk, and he is always moving to wherever the issue is within Tesla, which are a sign of a great leader. He is also incredibly obsessed with anything that he does for any of his companies, notably SpaceX. Musk has stated numerous times that his goal is to set up civilization on mars to ensure that the human race will live on. Well, in order to achieve this goal, you will need some drastic changes, and Musk isn’t afraid to put these changes into action. He is always pushing his employees to work harder, work longer, and to strive for the excellence he demands from them. However, you can’t ask something from someone without proving you can perform the same way, and with this, Elon Musk strives. In my opinion, this is one of his greatest leadership traits, as many leaders are afraid or unwilling to get down and dirty with their work, which can lead to an unwillingness to follow any directions from your leader. As Gene Kranz did not say, Elon Musk did “Failure is an option here. If you are not failing, you are not innovating enough”. Be ready to embrace failure, and work from and learn from your mistakes. This is something Musk has learned over the years through his many businesses, and this is something that is constantly taught to us here in ROTC, and I believe that it has massive implications for success in the active duty Air Force. Empower your people, let them fail, and help them get back up and brush off their shoulders, letting them learn from mistakes made.

Innovation was never brought forward by people who stuck with the status quo. Elon Musk knows that, and he embraces that. Musk is not afraid to step out of his comfort zone, and bring new innovations to the table. One of the ways that Musk can create this vision to do something that hasn’t been done before, is by using a vision statement. This isn’t just any average vision statement, through the use of bold and ambitious vision statements, Musk can compel his people to do things that will work toward this statement, and I believe that this can directly translate into goals. Within the military, we need to get things done, we need to get them done on time, and we need to get them done with excellence. Attention to detail is everything, and if you set a specific goal of what you want to accomplish, you are much better versed to accomplish those set goals rather than having a vague and undescriptive goal. Take for example Tesla’s vision statement: “Tesla’s mission is to accelerate the world's transition to sustainable energy”. This is a bold statement, as it encompasses a large population, and a large land area to cover, however it has been written down, and this I believe will motivate Musk’s employees to work towards sustainable energy and electric vehicles. Musk has created a powerhouse within his companies at SpaceX and Tesla with people who believe in him and who are willing to put forth many hours dedicated to the end outcome, a sustainable future for us all.

Another critical feature of leadership is being able to give effective and proper feedback when needed. If you are able to evaluate your team effectively, and then give feedback on what you believe went well and did not go so well, you will be setting them up for success from the beginning. Feedback is crucial within leadership styles and being able to harness evaluation and feedback will allow you to find what flaws you have within not only your team but yourself as well. Elon Musk agrees, feedback, and more importantly, a feedback loop, meaning using criticisms from employees and yourself to better the workplace and work environment as a whole, is crucial to success, and this is incredibly important in military service as well. By taking the responses of the people you are directly leading, you are able to more efficiently adjust certain aspects of your leadership, perhaps how you give orders, or your attitude at work, in order to boost morale and productivity within the wing/squadron as a whole.

Another key feature that has allowed Elon Musk to thrive within the business world of Tesla and SpaceX is building the company around people who you know are capable, and people who you know will complete the job effectively and quickly. As Musk puts it, you need to build a company that is not reliant on you in the end. Delegation is key. While you may want to attack everything by yourself, putting your own touch on things, you have to realize that you have a team of dedicated and very talented individuals that can help you out at any time. Learn to put your team to work and teach them the things that they need to know in order to be successful.

So what makes Elon Musk such a good leader? It is a combination of everything that was mentioned earlier in this essay. The number one reason why I believe that Elon Musk is such a successful leader is his inability to let failure knock him down. He embraces failure, using it for motivation and channeling that desire to succeed into better products and innovations. He isn’t afraid to utilize his people if he gets overwhelmed, however. He is always striving to succeed, to be the best that he can be. According to a tcl.org article, Elon Musk and many other successful leaders share mostly the same traits. These traits consist of pushing the status quo, being innovative, and wanting to push the boundaries, most of them are incredibly resourceful (epically Musk, who understands that he can build his own rocket for a mere 3% of the asking price of an old one from the Russians), and finally, Musk and many other successful business people are works in progress, works that are always changing, always adapting to their surroundings, always willing to keep pushing boundaries to change the world around them.

So what does Musk say that has attributed to his found success? He believes that asking the right questions can be detrimental to getting the right solutions. In Musk’s SpaceX example, he started by asking the question of how can I put humans on mars, and do it without failure. This led to another question, how am I going to feed them? Leads to his next question of, how am I going to get them there? These questions built up on each other, leading to having to formulate solutions to said questions. By asking the right questions, Musk was able to identify the problems that he was having and come up with direct solutions to these problems. This is something that has led to his success, and I believe that this is something that can lead to success from any leader, just by ensuring that you are identifying the problem and asking yourself / your team members “Why?”. By asking the right question, your focus is put on finding the right solution, which ends up leading to finding the said solution. Musk focuses on asking the right questions, and I believe that all leaders should do the same.

Finally, I wanted to go into some detail about some quotes that Musk has said before and why I believe that these quotes are crucial to not only his success but to leaders in the military trying to bring their team together to be the best that they can be. One of my favorite quotes said by Musk is “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.” (Elon Musk). We utilize something like this in ROTC and in the active duty Air Force, because we, as everyone knows, work as a team and we all fail or succeed together as a team. Our team is our success, and our team is also our downfall. That is why it is so important to keep the morale up within the wing/squadron so that everyone is operating at maximum capacity. If we have the best individual members, then sure we will have success, but if we have the best of all types of people and different knowledge sets, we will be the most rounded off team and we will succeed much more than with a sole player. Another quote that I believe relates strongly to our mission and job here in ROTC is “People work better when they know what the goal is and why. It is important that people look forward to coming into work in the morning and enjoy working” (Elon Musk). I believe this quote shows that Elon Musk is a true leader because he is taking into consideration his people. If you make the people want to work for you, rather than being forced to work for you, they will respond much better to direction and commands than if you made their lives miserable. I believe this is the same way about military service, which is something that we can all take away. If we make the people below us want to work, they will produce some of the best work they’ve ever done, because they will be proud to be working and accomplishing their goals. However, if you make them despise waking up at 04:30 to come into work after PT, or make them despise staying those extra few hours for you to accomplish a set task, they will be less likely to perform nearly as efficiently as they would have done before.

One final quote to finish my analysis ties back to a previous point of Musk’s leadership within the multiple companies he has owned, and that is that he is not afraid to take feedback and give feedback. This is called the feedback loop. His quote is as follows: '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.' (Elon Musk). You, as a leader, have to be willing to take the heat from feedback and be willing to utilize that information to better yourself and the people around him. This is something that we utilize in ROTC, called the hot seat, putting someone on the “hot seat” to tell them what they are doing not only bad but also good, so that they can focus on bettering themselves. We do this because if one person isn’t working to their full potential, or has issues that they are unaware of, then they can harm the performance of the team as a whole. I believe that Elon Musk understands this, and he is alright with getting feedback, and giving feedback, in order to try to boost the performance of his companies and what their specific jobs are.

Elon Musk has had many different companies, and through many different trial and error methods, I believe that he has found the best way for him to lead. Now, everyone has different people they are leading, and they all have different personalities, but for the most part, I believe that Elon Musk is a good example of what a good leader is. He is caring for his people, he is willing to put in the work to boost trust within his organizations, and he is willing to take and give feedback in order to better himself and the people around him that he works for. Through SpaceX and Tesla, Musk has set visions and goals that he wants to accomplish, and through vision statements, he is able to focus on a mission and get things done efficiently and effectively.

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Elon Musk: An Analysis of Leadership. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 17, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/elon-musk-an-analysis-of-leadership/
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