Advance Performance | Leadership Lessons from Elon Musk
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Leadership Lessons from Elon Musk

Leadership Lessons from Elon Musk

“When I was in college there were three areas that I thought most would affect the future of humanity. Those were the internet, the transition to a sustainable energy economy, and space exploration and ultimately extending life beyond Earth and making it multi-planetary.”

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Elon Musk is not your average businessman, not your average CEO, and not even your average visionary.  Elon Musk wants to extend humanity’s survival by setting up a colony on Mars! You may think Musk’s goal is unrealistic but his company SpaceX was the first commercial company contracted by NASA to ferry cargo to the International Space Station. SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9 rocket was the first rocket to successfully vertically land on a drone ship on land at Cape Canaveral, Florida 21st December 2015. Its latest launch last weekend of another Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California was the first attempt to land on a drone ship at sea. Although unsuccessful this time in the landing it was very close, and there is no doubt Musk will be planning the solution for success in the future.

“The first step is to establish that something is possible; then probability will occur.”

Musk has always been a go-getter who created his own opportunities in his passions. He learned coding at home at 10 years old, and two years later, sold the code for a BASIC-based video game he created called Blastar to a magazine called PC and Office Technology for approximately US$500. Following Bachelor degrees in both Physics and Economics, he was accepted at Stanford University to take a PhD in Applied Physics. He dropped out after two days – to become part of the internet boom creating Zip2 with his brother, marketing an internet city guide to the newspaper publishing industry.

“Great companies are built on great products.”

After selling his shares in Zip2, Musk was co-founder and integral to the development of PayPal, which is obviously integral to the online business world with over 173 million active users – its reputation conveys its value as a great product.

PayPal is at the other end of the spectrum from Musk’s later ventures – Tesla Motors, SpaceX and SolarCity. Musk was in charge of the design of the award winning electric sports car Tesla Roadster which has sold in 31 countries, developing the product just after the financial crisis of 2008. Tesla Motors is a part of the future of motoring in a world of climate change and their move to family cars since 2012 demonstrates Musk’s visionary ideals of the electric car are affordable and mainstream.

SolarCity which Musk set up with his cousins provides the superchargers for the Tesla cars. The two companies illustrate Musk’s commitment to combat global warming.

“If something is important enough, even if the odds are against you, you should still do it.”

Musk set up SpaceX in 2002 to work towards his goal to make humans multi-planetary through affordable space travel. His mission long term is to explore the New World of space, to transport people and goods to Mars so that ultimately a civilisation can be formed. In 2002, with experience in internet businesses this must have seemed extreme – this was even before he joined Tesla Motors! But Musk started to work on his dream step by step.

He researched rocket launches and particularly recognised the inefficiency in government spending and processes. From his research he created a simpler more efficient and economical model in the Merlin engines which run on kerosene rather than petrol making them cheaper. There are fewer stages in the launch of the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 – and they are reusable, reliable and cost effective at approximately 90% less cost than other rockets.

When SpaceX’s first three rocket launches failed, Musk didn’t give up. He led his team of engineers to look at the problems, and work through the solutions to develop the renowned rockets. “Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”

“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.”

SpaceX is laid out similar to other dotcom companies in Silicon Valley – where Musk’s early business successes originated. Employees work in an open plan space with the factory floor set up as an assembly line to build rockets.  Colleagues call themselves SpaceXers forming a team culture. Musk himself is chief designer and CEO and works in an open cubicle on the factory floor. The whole team have shared in the development of their rockets and pursuing a dream to go to space then the ISS and now to Mars. Until recently, Musk was involved in every appointment. This has created an inclusive culture where everyone is sharing in his inspirational vision to extend life beyond Earth – making it a reality step by step.

“I think life on Earth must be about more than just solving problems… It’s got to be something inspiring even if it is vicarious.”