If someone had offered me a book about cars and space, I would have politely declined. Cars and space don’t tend to fall within the scope of my interests. Fortunately, I didn’t know that Elon Musk, the biography, had strong car and space themes when I added it to cart thinking it would unfold in a standard Silicon Valley profile type of way. Because, as it happens, Elon Musk’s version of cars and space makes for compelling reading. I absolutely loved this book.You may have heard Musk mentioned in the news recently. Firstly, in connection with the catastrophic launch of a SpaceX rocket carrying the first Facebook satellite bound to deliver high speed internet to the entire African continent. Secondly, in connection with the death of a Tesla driver, the first victim of self driving technology. Musk was the founder, and key investor, in both SpaceX and Tesla, and remains the vision and voice of both companies.
Elon Musk, the book, was written by Ashlee Vance, with the reluctant and belated participation of Musk himself (Musk would never spend time writing his own memoirs, he has space to conquer).
Musk is something of a tortured genius. He had a privileged but grim childhood in South Africa, before moving to Canada and the US to study economics and physics. Towards the end of his studies, Musk briefly considered getting into the video game business. But he came to see video games as not quite a grand enough pursuit. Musk’s recollection is that, during his time in Canada and the US, he formed the view that the internet, renewable energy and space would be the three areas that would undergo significant change in the years to come. He vowed to pursue projects in all three.
As the author describes, Musk is at pains to explain and recount the early origins of his interest in electric cars, solar energy and rockets. The author thinks that Musk tries to shape his life story in a forced way to demonstrate that he is not a man of trend but of long-held purpose – I’m not sure about that. What is clear, though, is that Musk wants people to know that he is different from other Silicon Valley types. That his purpose is not money or fame (that becomes bleedingly obvious when he gambles his own home on a flailing early Tesla), but something much more magnanimous. He wants to make space accessible. He wants to capture the sun and reimagine driving. He wants to take tourists to Mars. He genuinely wants to change the world as we know it.
Musk has accumulated an army of devoted employees who work around the clock to bring Musk’s ideas to life. They forego their personal life, any life at all, for Musk’s SpaceX / Tesla dream. As one employee said: ‘His vision is so clear. He almost hypnotises you. He gives you the crazy eye, and it’s like, yes, we can get to Mars.’
Musk’s management style forms an interesting thread in the book. His style is not one you’ll ever see championed in a management text. He is intensely smart, and aims to be across all of the technical detail. But he forgets to communicate. And even the smartest, most hard-working, hand-picked workers in his factories cannot read his mind. In a moment of self awareness, he reflected on the challenge of learning to work with others: ‘I’d never been a sports captain or a captain of anything or managed a single person. I had to think, Okay, what are the things that affect how a team functions. The first obvious assumption would be that other people will behave like you. But that’s not true. Even if they would like to behave like you, they don’t necessarily have all the assumptions or information that you have in your mind. You have to put yourself in a position where you say, ‘Well, how would this sound to them, knowing what they know?”
Much of the time, Musk’s expectations are vast. With Tesla, he aimed to disrupt the entire automotive industry (‘Detroit’, as he terms it) with a Silicon Valley start up. And he kind of has. I am now a certified Tesla enthusiast, and I think you will be too if you read this book. As Musk likes to say: a Tesla is not a car. It’s a smartphone on wheels. It’s as much a feat of renewable energy and technology as it is of automotive engineering. One of the many cool things about Tesla is the connectivity. Your car can be in the garage and Tesla HQ can remedy a defect by issuing a software update as you sleep. You can wake up to a serviced, repaired, up-to-date vehicle, ready to wish you a happy birthday if the day is right. Contrast this to the palaver of taking an ordinary car to the mechanic shop, waiting for a diagnosis and paying for repairs, and you can start to see why Tesla is not a passing fad. As Musk says, it would take Jaguar a year to design and implement a change to the ‘P’ icon on the dash. Overnight, Tesla can change the ‘P’ icon to a bunny for Easter, if it so chooses.
Those high expectations are even loftier when it comes to SpaceX. SpaceX is aiming to put materiel, and eventually people, into space for a fraction of the cost and time of legacy space organisations like the US and Russian armies and their contractors. It is unfathomable that Musk built a space company from scratch, but he did. Part of this involved leasing a deserted island from which to launch the rockets, devoted employees camping out and working around the clock for the cause.Musk’s management style is particularly prominent in the all-staff emails he sends around to his employees, some of which have been replicated in the book. On a visit to Tesla HQ, the author noted how impressive it was that so many people were working on the weekend. Musk saw it in a different light, lamenting that fewer and fewer people had been working weekends and that he was going to send an email saying they had all ‘grown f-ing soft!’. Another all-staff email contained a Muskian tirade about the rising use of jargon and banning the use of acronyms in all but a few circumstances. Another all-staff email was sent in response to murmurings from staff who thought that it may be timely to unload their SpaceX stocks, something which would have been catastrophic for the companies’ books at the time. Musk dispatched a lengthy manifesto on why all staff should retain their stocks, punctured with subheadings and frustration.
Another memorable act of questionable management was an email Musk sent to an employee who had skipped out of an event to attend the birth of his child. Musk found this particular decision ‘disappointing’ and encouraged the employee to ‘figure out where his priorities were’.
And a final, memorable example of the Muskian way comes from his wedding day. Musk chose the first dance as an appropriate time whisper to his new wife: ‘I am the alpha in this relationship’.
I spend a lot of time thinking and reading about good management. This book made me question my fervent regard for a conscious and consultative management style. I am starting to wonder whether, sometimes, a vision can be so grand that it warrants a draconian, Muskian style of leader. This goes against what I usually believe about good leaders, but I can’t deny Musk’s success and I can’t help but wonder if a different style would have fallen short.
Perhaps its a case of letting geniuses be geniuses. I don’t know.
I suppose what we do know is that the Musk way is not the only way. The obvious counter is Richard Branson – a man who has conquered planes and is seeking to conquer space. He has done that with a vastly different management style.
Either way, I do believe that there is a firm place in the world for men like Musk. A dreamer and a doer. He will change the world.
Thought Leader(s): Elon Musk
Book(s): Vance, A (2015) ‘Elon Musk’, Virgin Books.