Elon Musk, a Canadian-American citizen, born in South Africa, is the current CEO (part owner) of two of the most exciting companies in the world today. He had a middle-class upbringing; he taught himself computer programming at a tender age, and a bullying victim learnt to stick up for himself. After graduating from high school in 1989, he moved to Canada (and later the US), where he attended Queen’s University and the University of Pennsylvania respectively. In 1995, he (along with his brother) started a web company called Zip2, which he sold in 1999 for $307 million. He then co-founded X.com, which merged with Confinity, to develop PayPal, which was sold in 2002 to Ebay for $1.5 billion. Musk went on to start and head the rocket manufacturing company, SpaceX and bought an interest in the electric car company, Tesla Motors (before becoming its CEO and product architect in 2008).
Musk has been hugely successful in every venture that he founded and/or was involved in, but even most importantly, founded or co-founded businesses. His leadership qualities stem from a middle child upbringing in a broken family. His parents divorced in 1980 before he went to live with his father in several locations in South Africa. He adapted to the fast changing family, school, and community changes, which in turn rendered him comfortable in similar business environments. His ability to have clear visions, fortitude, courage, and ability to cope with business environmental changes remains his greatest skill as a leader.
Elon Musk believes in the need for a clear vision, persuasion, competency, inspiration and sense of purpose. All his ventures required a unique combination of in-depth understanding of technological possibilities, inventiveness and grasp of the external environments (necessary to determine the product potential) that was necessary to render the ideas successful. According to Feloni (2014), Musk is an inspirational leader with a great vision and persuasiveness. He also believes in social good, sustainability, and the future, which is why he is involved in companies that develop innovative products for the future, such as electric cars.
His best claim to fame lies in his successful ventures and success against immense technical and business odds. He has staked his reputation on just about every business that he was involved in and has mostly been a huge success. Even most importantly, Musk has always been drawn to innovative business ideas that are hugely challenging but equally rewarding. It is his daring, courage, vision, and uncanny ability that has earned him admiration and upwards of $13 billion.
He exhibits attributes of a transformational leader i.e. a leader who identifies the existent potential and works to actively develop it. Musk had a great ability to engage his followers (with many whom he has a great relationship), and push them beyond the mere call of duty, and become leaders too. In 2014 for instance, he announced that Tesla Motors will open-source ints intellectual property rights so that the auto-industry can build on them, as against having to re-invent the wheel, which in turn serves to ensure that the industry leverages the immense resourcefulness across the world to drive the electric car indsutry forward. In this, Musk realizes that the future of his company lies with the future of the electric car industry as a whole, and is working to achieve the industry-wide growth.
His effectiveness flows from his personal commitment to his vision, which inspires other people. For instance, he often invests in companies that he runs, and as against being just another wealthy venture capitalist, he has a hands-on approach to managing his companies. He is also a hugely respected leader given his past success and influence in the respective industries that is he is involved in, which in turn makes him inspiring to those that he leads. His employees do not see him as just another $13 billion guy, but one who knows and believes in whatever he puts his finger on (Mainwaring, 2014; Vance, 2015).
Musk considers learning, integrity, optimism, commitment to, and achievement of visions as the most important measures of success. He does not actively pursue profit but pursues a purpose, which he believes does lead to profit. In this way, Musk ensures that his teams are focussed on the core objectives of their respective businesses as against the monetary implications of their efforts.
Examples of leadership
When in 2008, a SpaceX rocket failed as it entered space, Musk moved with speed to reassure employees and investors asserting that while it was difficult, the company has achieved the most important goal that they had set out to do i.e. executing a first stage flight into outer space. He got an influential investor to back the program (since raising money from the public would have been harder) and made sure that SpaceX did not see the failure as a failure, but a success. Within weeks, a new mission was run successfully. Similarly, in his commitment to transform the fossil fuel-driven motor industry, Musk invested in, and true to his style, took over the leadership of Tesla in 2008, at a time when it faced major economic challenges. He turned it into a profitable and promising venture.
Musk is a leader who thrives in deeply uncertain environments, with little precedent (Northhouse, 2007; Feloni, 2014). He has a strong vision, commitment to the same and believes in hard work. His transformational leadership style, coupled with his boundless optimism, past success and influence in the industry, have been immensely important in making him an effective and successful leader, but perhaps most importantly, have led to the emergence of Paypal, Tesla and SpaceX, which are of some of the most exciting companies today (Vance, 2015; Mainwaring, 2014).
Feloni, R. (2014, June 14). Former SpaceX Employee Explains What It's Like To Work For Elon Musk. Retrieved June 28, 2015, from http://www.businessinsider.com/what-its-like-to-work-for-elon-musk-2014-6
Mainwaring, S. (2014, June 24). 21st Century Leadership: 3 Master Strokes By Elon Musk. Retrieved June 29, 2015, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/simonmainwaring/2014/06/24/21st-century-leadership-3-master-strokes-by-elon-musk/
Northhouse, P. G. (2007). Leadership: Theory and Practice. New York: SAGE.
Vance, A. (2015). Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. ISBN 978-0062301239. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.