Elon Musk is probably the most innovative entrepreneur of his generation. He transformed entire industries. But, in my view, not because he is a great leader, but despite being a lousy leader. In a fascinating, well-researched biography with many colorful details, Walter Isaacson shines a light on Elon Musk as entrepreneur, leader, manager, son, husband, and father. Isaacson, who also wrote a biography of Steve Jobs, shadowed Musk for two years, attended his meetings and interviewed him and many of his (former) colleagues, family members and (former) life companions.
Musk is a visionary who founded SpaceX to increase the chances for the survival of human consciousness by making us a multiplanetary species. He built Tesla and SolarCity to lead the way to a sustainable energy future. Optimus and Neuralink were launched to create human-machine interfaces that protect us from evil artificial intelligence. His vision for X, the former Twitter, is less clear.
But in the wake of his historically transforming achievements came broken promises, arrogant impulses, inflammatory statements, unnecessary fights. As Isaacson writes: “His life had too few flame diverters.”
In this review I will focus on leadership, although the book is about much more than that. Musk, as I see it, doesn’t possess some of the qualities that are necessary for good leadership. I will highlight three of those.
The first is that leaders are emotionally intelligent. This includes self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy and social skills. Musk is notoriously bad in some of those. He cannot regulate his emotions for example, blurting out childish or abusive statements on Twitter or in interviews. He sometimes zones out into a “demon mode”, in which he either shuts down completely or erupts, destructing the people that he perceives are standing in his way. He has fired many people on the spot, some with, some without reason. When Musk feels frustrated by a lack of progress, he tends to take it out on others. Dozens of leaders at his companies have quit themselves because they couldn’t take it anymore. Early in his career Musk was pushed out of some companies. According to Isaacson he is “a visionary who didn’t play well with others”. His ex-wife Justine is quoted in the book, saying that for Musk “intensity takes the place of intimacy”. He has neither the interest nor the ability to come close to people; he has very few close relationships, both professionally and personally. He cares about humanity, but not about humans.
Musk doesn’t believe in psychological safety. He considers it “the enemy of urgency, progress, orbital velocity”. He also considers comradery as dangerous. “It makes it hard for people to challenge each other’s work.” As a leader “it’s not your job to make people on your team love you. In fact, that is counterproductive”, he says. When he took over Twitter, he abolished nearly all of the services and provisions that made the company a great place to work for its employees.
The second quality is that leaders achieve results by mobilizing others. Musk can inspire and motivate people, but he frequently cracks the whip to get people in line. One of his favorite words is ‘hardcore’, which means working with high intensity. “Revolutionizing industries is not for the faint of heart.” At all of his companies he has set insane targets or deadlines and drove people to the max to meet them. Sometimes the impossible was achieved after all by forcing a team to come together and work 24/7, sometimes the frenzies failed.
Musk sets very high targets for himself and expects no less from others. He is contemptuous of the concept of work-life balance. When he didn’t see anyone working on a late Friday night at SpaceX, he erupted. He scorns successful people who like to take vacations.
Musk can be a micro manager who gets obessed with details. Some of his engineers appreciate his knowledgeable commitment but he can also drive people crazy. He doesn’t consider his ideas to be mere suggestions. As he said to a colleague: “When I ask for something, you fucking give it to me”. Jeff Bezos of Amazon is quoted in the book, saying that Musk rarely knew as much as he claimed and that his interventions were usually unhelpful or even outright problematic.
Musk doesn’t like feedback. If employees were considered negative, they were not invited to the next meeting. People became afraid to give him bad news or question a decision.
Both a quality and a pitfall is his reality distortion field. The quality is that it allows him to achieve the impossible, the pitfall is that it comes at the expense of people. At SpaceX for example Musk constantly pressed his team to source components from non-aerospace companies, reducing costs of components, engines or launchpads by 90 percent or more. The Falcon 1 rocket made history as the first privately built rocket to launch from the ground and reach orbit. SpaceX did that with 500 employees, while Boeing’s comparable division had 50,000.
This is a great book about an icon of our times, a man with many tremendous qualities, good leadership not being one of them.
Walter Isaacson. Elon Musk. Simon & Schuster, 2023