A Formula for Success and a Recipe for Disaster


Elon Musk’s current net worth is estimated to be over 200 billion dollars. He has been the owner, or part-owner of PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla, Neuralink, and Twitter (X) . Yet, in Walter Isaacson’s biography of the controversial figure, he seems to display several qualities that would prevent him from being a successful leader. In fact, some of the reasons he has had so much success in business are also what have brought him so much infamy.


He has a bold, clear vision and he takes risks. He develops business models that create demand and control costs, and he demonstrates a personal passion to achieve his vision. In reading Isaacson’s biography, we see that Musk has taken each of these foundational elements for business success beyond what seems possible to achieve enormous success.


For example, Musk doesn’t just have a big vision or a stretch goal, his purposes relate to saving civilization, the planet, and democracy. These are not just clever marketing pitches to attract talent and investment. He truly believes the stakes are that high if he fails, which is why he is known for pushing employees much harder than a reasonable leader would be expected to. Some consider him a slavedriver, but he seems to think it is necessary to save humanity.


Even more impressive, he is not just focused on one world-changing solution but is a very hands-on leader in all his companies. The mental and physical energy to operate such disparate businesses and technologies does not even seem possible.


Isaacson presents Musk as more than just a bold visionary. He understands the nuts and bolts of each of his businesses. In all of his startups, he has been a driving force to develop the right product features and ensure manufacturing processes are lean. He has distilled his lessons learned into the following 5 steps he calls the “algorithm”:


  1. Question every requirement
  2. Delete every process you can – you may have to add back later. If you didn’t end up adding back at least 10 percent of them, then you didn’t delete enough
  3. Simplify and optimize – after you have deleted every process you can
  4. Accelerate cycle time – only after doing the first 3 steps
  5. Automate


Finally, Musk has modeled the commitment needed to take on the most difficult challenges. He has frequently proved the experts wrong or “bent reality” by personally leading a surge of managers to tackle the most difficult problems. No one can question his work ethic and his all-in approach. At different stages of his companies’ development, he has slept in offices and factory floors to achieve the desired results.


Of course, the Musk story is far more complicated and interesting than just a formula for business success. By all accounts, he possesses a unique personality and management style that goes far beyond quirky or eccentric. Isaacson presents story after story of a self-destructive leader completely lacking emotional intelligence. While he can certainly be charismatic and engaging, his default management style does not align with most of today’s best practices for an enlightened leader motivating their team.


Jim Collins in Good to Great contrasts the limitations of leaders who sees themselves as “a genius with a thousand helpers” with the long term success created by a “Level 5 leader” who possesses both humility and a commitment to succeed. Musk clearly sees himself as the smartest person in the room and is quite comfortable making high-risk decisions with little counsel. Yet he also works hard to recruit the brightest and hardest working to support his organizations.


When Musk took over Twitter he was appalled at the emphasis on work-life balance that included a gracious work-from-home approach and first-class workplace amenities. For Musk, work is war. The stakes are high and if you are not willing to give everything to pursue victory you are not worthy of wearing the uniform. He believes that breakthrough solutions come in moments of crisis and discomfort. Most leaders don’t last in this environment, even those who have fought beside Musk and experienced great success. At some point, they opt out or Musk determines they have lost the edge.


At the end of the biography, Isaacson shares Musk admitting, “I have shot myself in the foot so often, I ought to buy Kevlar boots.” It was a reminder that even Musk is capable of self-awareness. Isaacson also raises the question, “Would a restrained Musk accomplish as much as Musk unbound?” The question applies to many that have earned the label “genius” over the years. It is hard to separate their unique strengths from their outsized faults.


However, I prefer to think that Elon Musk would contribute more with greater growth in the emotional and spiritual aspects of his life. He would bring even more to the table as a leader who could inspire not just with vision and drive, but with wisdom. No doubt the transformation would be challenging given his abrasive personality and past patterns, but so has been every other challenge he has pursued. This one may be the most critical to all the others if he is to avoid creating a ceiling on his endeavors, or worse, seeing them fall apart because of his leadership deficiencies. Musk is fond of saying “The only rules are the ones dictated by the laws of physics.” This also applies to not placing limits on our personal transformation and leadership growth.