Inspiring leadership and innovation lessons from Elon Musk

Posted by Benjamin Gran on June 23, 2015

Photo by Steve Jurvetson. Used under CC 2.0

Elon Musk is one of the most fascinating entrepreneurs in the world. His companies, Tesla Motors, SpaceX, and Solar City, are reinventing the industries of transportation, space exploration, and energy. Not only is he a billionaire and a highly influential thinker in the business world, he's also kind of a real-life superhero – described as “the world's raddest man" by Wait But Why, Elon Musk was the inspiration for Tony Stark's character in the Iron Man movies (played by Robert Downey, Jr.).

A new biography of Elon Musk was recently published, offering IT pros a glimpse into his innovative ideas and success, giving them a chance to study his extraordinary process: 

Elon Musk is largely self-taught.

Elon Musk has two bachelor's degrees in Physics and Economics, but he has learned most of his most important skills and expertise by reading and by doing. He enrolled in a Ph.D. program in applied physics but dropped out after two days because he realized that he wanted to be an entrepreneur. Musk has been quoted as saying that he was frustrated with the slow pace of college lectures and classroom lessons; he prefers the faster “download speed" of getting information from his own reading and self-directed learning – even as a child, he used to read for 10 hours per day. This is an inspiring lesson for IT pros because the reality is, even though it's great to have a college degree, a lot of the best skill development happens on your own time by teaching yourself new coding languages or learning about new systems or figuring out how to solve problems on the job.

Musk is a big risk taker.

Musk currently has a net worth of more than $12 billion, but just a few years ago, he almost lost everything. Musk had some early success as a tech entrepreneur – he started a company called Zip2 which he sold for $20 million, and then became co-founder of PayPal which made him even richer – but Musk then took his wealth from these companies and invested it in founding Tesla (an electric car startup) and SpaceX (a private space exploration company that wanted to significantly reduce the cost of space travel and eventually support the human colonization of Mars).

Both of his companies, Tesla and SpaceX, almost failed in 2008 before getting last-minute infusions of capital. He was prepared to risk moving back in with his in-laws, and his big risk paid off. Now his companies are on a solid foundation and growing fast – Tesla's Model S car was rated 99 out of 100 by Consumer Reports; the highest-rated car ever – but it almost didn't happen because they ran into a cash crunch right in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis. (This blog post does a great job explaining just how close Elon Musk came to losing both of his companies – SpaceX had its first successful rocket launch in September 2008, and then a few months later on Christmas Eve 2008, Tesla's investors agreed to match Musk's investment to keep the company alive.) The lesson: Don't be afraid to take calculated risks. Whether it's taking a new job or trying a new way of solving a problem or even starting your own business, IT pros can learn from Musk's risk-taking spirit. And you're under a lot less pressure – chances are that no risk you'll ever take will have as big of a potential loss as Elon Musk's story of almost losing two companies at the start of the Great Recession.

Musk is focused on the biggest possible problems.

When Elon Musk was just out of college, he thought hard about what he wanted to dedicate his career to, and he decided that the Internet, space exploration, and sustainable energy were the biggest opportunities affecting the future existence of humanity. That's why he decided to pursue the business opportunities that he did – Zip2 and PayPal (Internet), SpaceX (space travel), Tesla and Solar City (sustainable energy). He sees his work as directly shaping humanity's future – perhaps someday everyone will drive electric cars inspired by Tesla and power their homes with solar energy (with zero carbon emissions); perhaps someday humanity will extend itself to Mars, which Musk sees as a way to hedge against the risk of our species' extinction due to environmental calamity or nuclear war or other existential threats – in case something horrible happens on Earth, the human species could survive on Mars.

Cynics might argue that Musk is just another flamboyant businessman trying to get publicity and make money. Yes, Musk is a billionaire, yes, he's a businessman – but unlike many other billionaire business people, he has a surprisingly idealistic streak to what he's trying to do. He grapples with big questions. At heart, he's interested in preserving the fragile thread of human civilization and human consciousness – his companies are dedicated to creating a sustainable future for life on Earth while also making it possible for life to expand beyond Earth. He's preoccupied by the profound challenges posed by Artificial Superintelligence and the Fermi Paradox. He's a big thinker with a fascinating sense of mission. The lesson for IT pros is to ask yourselves: what is your sense of mission? What is the larger purpose for your work and your life? What are the massive, all-consuming problems and big, audacious goals that you want to dedicate your career to? Are you really working on the problems and supporting the organizations that you're most passionate about? If not, what can you change?

Of course, Elon Musk is not really a “superhero," but I don't know of any other business leader who's doing such fascinating work that is so potentially beneficial to humanity's future. Elon Musk might not succeed in changing the world to a new paradigm of electric cars and solar-powered homes and colonies on Mars, but I'm rooting for him – and it's going to be a lot of fun to watch him try.



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