8 Unlikely Lessons All Thought Leaders Can Learn From Elon Musk This Year
Love him or hate him, few CEOs have captured the public imagination like Elon Musk.
The name immediately brings to mind all sorts of things, from electric cars to billionaire space exploration to Twitter/X to the strangest celebrity offspring names since Frank Zappa’s.
2023 was an especially busy year for Elon. The Canadian citizen, who grew up in Pretoria, South Africa, positioned himself as a free speech warrior while his new purchase X (formerly Twitter) hemorrhaged users. The world’s wealthiest man became the subject of a new book by Steve Jobs biographer Walter Jacobson. The tech giant who already runs six companies launched his own AI. The father of 10 challenged Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg to a cage match.
Not everything world disruptor touches turns to gold, however. So let’s look at some dos and don’ts from the world of Elon Musk circa 2023, with a particular eye to lessons for other burgeoning business thought leaders out there.
Do embrace ‘failure’
In Musk World, the explosion of its rocket Starship after its April launch became a “rapid unscheduled disassembly.” Musk and his employees celebrated what they said was a major success owing to the rocket’s four-minute flight and its getting clear of the launchpad, even if Starship fell short of its goal of gathering enough speed to reach orbit and then re-enter the atmosphere. In fact, it’s because of his independence that Musk is able to go ahead with what the New York Times calls his “explode-as-you-learn” policy, which allows SpaceX to speed up testing and analysis. Cash-strapped NASA is not able to afford the same luxury.
Don’t treat your employees like dirt
According to a 2022 LA Times report, Musk “burns through executives with the heat of a battery fire,” “takes criticism personally,” fires people “on a whim,” and has a casual attitude towards workplace injuries and racism. He demands that employees sign NDAs and has a reputation for exacting retribution on those he thinks have crossed him. After buying Twitter he laid off 75% of staff. Earlier this year, he mocked a former employee’s disability. (Musk has since apologized.) In other words, his management style is not pretty, to say the least. Then again, can we really expect a man of Musk’s talents and power to be even-keeled?
Do think big (and read a lot of science fiction)
From recently launching his own AI, named Grok after a term coined by SF writer Robert A. Heinlein in his 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land, to planning manned missions to Mars, Musk is one of our biggest thinkers. Whether or not his plan to make humans a multi-planetary species comes to fruition, he seems less intent on accumulating wealth for wealth’s sake than promoting progress for the human race, at least how he sees it. Whether that makes him a hero or villain is in the eyes of those who stand to benefit—or not.
Don’t needlessly embroil yourself in world politics
Thanks to Starlink, the tech billionaire’s 4,500-strong network of satellites, Musk has become the dominant power in satellite internet technology. This has led to controversy over Musk’s decision to restrict access to Starlink multiple times during Russia’s war on Ukraine, at one point denying the Ukrainian military’s request to turn on Starlink near Russian-controlled Crimea. Playing war games seems ill-advised for a tech mogul, but at this point Musk is as powerful as a small nation.
Do name your kids whatever the heck you want
In 2023, the existence of Musk’s third child with Vancouver musician Grimes was revealed. The name? Techno Mechanicus, which follows X AE A-XII and Exa Dark Sideræl with the same mom. Musk also had twins, names not yet revealed, in 2021 with Shivon Zilis, an executive at one of his companies, and five other kids with his first wife, Canadian author Justine Wilson. Alas, they have relatively normal names—ones hardly befitting a dad who wants to colonize Mars.
Don’t buy a social media platform just because you can
“He thought of it as a technology company, when in fact it was an advertising medium based on human emotions and relationships” writes biographer Walter Isaacson of Musk’s 2022 Twitter purchase. In the year since Musk bought the platform, monthly active users for X/Twitter dropped 15% worldwide (and 18% in the U.S.) year-over-year and mobile daily active users dropped 16% on an annual basis in September 2023, to 183 million, according to Variety (quoting SimilarWeb and Sensor Tower). Hate speech has proliferated and ad sales plummeted. But don’t count X out yet. Musk is still intent on transforming it into a “single application that encompasses everything”— including processing financial payments.
Do give unlimited access to your biographer, if your biographer is Walter Isaacson
Isaacson, who wrote the 2011 bestseller Steve Jobs, shadowed Musk for two years to write his new biography on the business maverick. Among the revelations: Musk takes a very hands-on approach to product design. At his behest, “Design engineers at SpaceX moved their desks next to the assembly lines to reinforce the idea that product design and manufacturing must work hand-in-hand.” Other nuggets include Musk’s workplace creed, which commands employees to “question every requirement” from a department, including “the legal department” and “the safety department”; and to “delete any part or process” they can. As Musk says, “The only rules are the ones dictated by the laws of physics. Everything else is a recommendation.”
Don’t give unlimited access to your biographer, if you can’t take criticism
At least one reviewer came away from the book with the impression of Musk as “a mercurial ‘man-child’ with grandiose ambitions and an ego to match.”