MUST WE BE MUSK-ESQUE TO SUCCEED IN BREAKOUT ENTERPRISES? An entrepreneur’s reflections on Elon Musk’s creativity, capability and character

On December 2, 2011 I posted an article titled “The Steve Jobs Paradox.” (1) It was prompted by the passing of Jobs, an event that touched me profoundly and motivated me to read Walter Isaacson’s Jobs biography, which appeared shortly after Steve’s death.

I am now moved to write about another legendary Silicon Valley entrepreneur who is still alive and thriving: Elon Musk. I became particularly interested in Musk because my grandson, Brent Schroeter, a junior in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, was taking a quarter off to intern at SpaceX. Since he first began his studies at UW, Brent had been involved with another Musk initiative, the Hyperloop Project. His decision to apply for an internship at SpaceX obviously signaled that he has been quite enthralled by his Hyperloop work and wanted to explore another Musk initiative more deeply. When I mentioned this to a friend, he suggested I read the 2015 book by Ashlee Vance, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. (2)

I draw eight primary inferences common to both the Musk story as told by Vance and the Jobs story as told by Isaacson:

  1. Every entrepreneurial venture needs at least one individual who is absolutely consumed by a vision. That vision needs to be injected into others, who then catch the fire.
  2. The “injected” fire has the potential to completely engulf doubt. I have proposed in the past that one of the most vital roles of the entrepreneurial leader is to absorb uncertainty (3). Engulfing doubt is one path for doing so.
  3. I use the word “engulf” here judiciously; I did not say “consume”. There has to be enough room for different opinions and disagreement. It seems that Musk allows a limited amount of disagreement, but not much. Not clear how much Jobs did. This puts an enormous onus on the intellectual brilliance of the entrepreneur, something most of us do not have. Is this cult-of-personality sustainable? Scalable?
  4. The entrepreneurial leader needs to strike a difficult balance between transparency and the absorption of uncertainty. I am not sure that either Musk or Jobs accomplished this balance. Their transparency seems limited, yet their endeavors succeed. What does that teach us?
  5. I have long espoused that one of the important characteristics of an entrepreneurial leader is empathic capability, a key component of generating trust within the organization. Musk does not seem to have this empathic quality, yet he seems to be succeeding so far. What does this tell us?
  6. Musk and Jobs both have ground-breaking visions. This is coupled with a style that borders on despotic. Is it necessary to have a despotic edge to succeed in a vision as grand as placing a man on Mars?
  7. Musk and Jobs display an incredible capacity to envision the future and are reported to have a remarkable intellect. Are both ingredients necessary in one individual to accomplish extraordinary entrepreneurial achievements? Can this capacity be a shared characteristic among several people? How?
  8. Finally, both Jobs and Musk evidence an incredible eye for consumer-friendly style in their products: the iPhone and the Tesla. What is it in their own single-minded drive and their intellectual brilliance that enables such remarkable products? What can we learn from this?

This is not the first time I have been touched by Musk. I have witnessed and shared the anticipation of several friends who had patiently awaited delivery of the Tesla Model X, and their enthusiasm when they finally received their cars. And I have been awestruck at the successes of SpaceX launches. Watching the launch of Falcon Heavy on February 6th was, for me, one of the highlights of recent times — especially seeing those two booster rockets return to earth, deploy their legs at the last minute, and land effortlessly.

As I read Vance’s book, many thoughts swirled in my head. At times, I was maddened by Musk’s bizarre and impulsive behavior (spinning out and causing major damage to his million-dollar McLaren F1 sports car, for example). At other times, I was floored by his genius. And I often found myself pondering what Musk’s story told me about entrepreneurship and leadership. It has made me re-examine some of the characteristics that I hold dear in the entrepreneur and form the basis for my book and my teaching.

Perhaps what drew me most to Musk was his uniqueness in the Silicon Valley of today. The overwhelming majority of enterprises born and incubated in this valley over the past few decades have been software oriented — a world characterized by dramatic rises and falls, incredible turnover, and astounding advances possible only in a field fostering the testing of new ideas and their implementation at “warp speed.” Along comes an individual who started in that churning virtual environment and decides to embark on a very different entrepreneurial journey which I am much more familiar with: creating and manufacturing tangible products that require extensive science and engineering, must be produced to very strict quality standards, and have product life cycles measured in decades, not months. This is the entrepreneurial world in which I grew up in and made my minor mark, so it speaks to me.

One aspect particularly intrigues me (or better yet “bothers” me) as I think about what I learn from the Jobs and Musk stories. In many of my writings I place great importance in trust as the KEY ingredient for success in entrepreneurship as well as fulfillment in life. I believe when trust is absent or breaks down, it severely threatens all of our endeavors. Clearly, I only have a limited vantage point into the deeper inside stories of either the Jobs or Musk ventures. Yet on the surface I fail to see the trust element – except as it involves the overwhelming and dominating intellect of both Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, and, in the case of Musk, his financial power. I examine the trust question further below.

Here are some of the references and passages in Vance’s book that stood out for me, and some reflections on what they teach me:

  • Musk seems to be able to engulf doubt through two conditions: his total personal financial commitment and his incredible intellectual mastery of all aspects of his ventures. He proves this mastery by stepping in when his employees question the reasonableness of the goals he imposes. As relayed in Vance’s book:

…the absolute worst thing that someone can do is inform Musk that what he’s asking is impossible. An employee could be telling Musk that there’s no way to get the cost on something like that actuator down to where he wants it or that there is simply not enough time to build a part by Musk’s deadline. “Elon will say, ‘Fine. You’re off the project, and I am now the CEO of the project. I will do your job and be CEO of two companies at the same time. I will deliver it,’” Brogan [Kevin Brogan, one of the early engineers at SpaceX] said. “What’s crazy is that Elon actually does it. Every time he’s fired someone and taken their job, he’s delivered on whatever the project was. (4)

  • Most of us mortals cannot match the combination of business acumen and intellectual capability of Musk. So, for those of us in the “normal” range, what does this suggest? A possibility: If overwhelming intellect and financial dominance is necessary to succeed in monumental visions, it becomes even more important for us regular mortals to live and work in a trust environment since we depend so much more on the intellect and character of those we attract to join us in the adventure rather than just our own super-capabilities. The key is to make sure that these strengths exist among our senior executives and that they are harnessed as if they were one actor. For we need a common purpose and shared values, and deep mutual trust.
  • From the Vance book, I get the impression that Musk shows very little regard for the impact of his decisions and actions on his employees. His visionary fire seems so all consuming that it totally inhibits him from extending his sensitivities to the individual. His business goals, whether micro or macro, dominate his thinking and his actions. His employees seem to be merely his means to an end rather than fully vested co-journeyers.  I have always argued that an important characteristic of a good leader is the empathic capability to relate to his/her colleagues. It is not clear from the book whether Musk has that quality. This then raises a key question: To what extent, when we tackle enormously ambitious and groundbreaking dreams, must we have a hardness of execution that does not allow for empathy? Perhaps to invent and implement a new drug manufacturing technology or a pollution free gas turbine (my old worlds) you can be – and may have to be – empathic, but to shoot for Mars you cannot afford such softness.
  • I have also argued that transparency is a key element in building a resilient team and overcoming the hurdles we inevitably face when growing a company. This is another component of the trust equation. Musk seems to concentrate his “transparency” on one edict: If you are with me you do what I ask, even if you think the request is unreasonable; if you do not agree, “here is the door.” Does this allow for enough doubt to explore alternatives, advance knowledge, and prevent major errors? When I sought my grandson’s impression, he commented, “According to those I have talked with who work directly with Elon, the answer is ‘Yes’ — Musk always welcomes dissenting voices if and only if they are backed by rigorous evidence.”
  • I would argue that in the early creative process such rigorous evidence is rarely available, and the exploratory nature of breakthrough science requires openess to the ideas of others even in their formative stage. That is the secret of discovery, as so well expressed by Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, the Hungarian biochemist recipient of the 1937 Nobel Prize in Physiologyand Medicine: “Discovery consists of looking at the same thing as everyone else and seeing something different.”
  • I pointed out earlier that Musk’s enterprises are different from the typical Silicon Valley companies’ in that his products take years to develop. Thus, the fast trial-and-error possible with software startups is not realistic. However, it seems that the intense, high-speed culture Musk has imposed on his enterprises does breed a spirit of fast trials and quick abandonment of ideas that do not show promise. The rapid timetable and cost-reduction demands in Musk’s playbook foster quick assessment of possibilities. As Vance writes, “Rarely did Tesla get hung up over analyzing a situation. The company would pick a plan of attack, and when it failed at something, it failed fast and tried a new approach.”(5)  We can all learn from this mindset. I will remember the “it failed fast and tried a new approach” description.
  • There seems to be another consequence of Musk’s intense and single-minded focus on the grand goal: He seems to quickly put past failures in context of the larger aim, rather than dwelling on them. This is actually remarkable in an individual who reportedly reacts so harshly to disagreement and failure. It indicates to me a remarkable, multiplex personality, which, when it counts, is able to acknowledge challenges even if they suggest imperfection in the design or execution. And more importantly, while he seems to be quick to criticize employees who do not toe the Musk line or flow with the Musk expectation, he is able to put setbacks in perspective for his teams and picks them back up when we more ordinary leaders might have been overwhelmed. That is suggested in Vance’s description of the failure of the first SpaceX launch in September 2008:

The failed launch left many SpaceX employees shattered. “It was so profound seeing the energy shift over the room in the course of thirty seconds,” said Dolly Singh, a recruiter at SpaceX. “It was like the worst fucking day ever. You don’t usually see grown-ups weeping, but there they were. We were tired and broken emotionally.” Musk addressed the workers right away and encouraged them to get back to work. “He said, ‘Look. We are going to do this. It’s going to be okay. Don’t freak out,’” Singh recalled. “It was like magic. Everyone chilled out immediately and started to focus on figuring out what just happened and how to fix it. It went from despair to hope and focus.”(6)

  • While Musk is the face of his companies, I get the impression that one key to his survival are a few colleagues who provide the approachable bridge between his hard and often uncaring demeanor and his employees. This seems to be the case at SpaceX, as embodied by Gwynne Shotwell. Recruited as the seventh employee, she is described in the Vance book as the “interpreter” of Musk’s edicts, the softener and smoother of the rough spots, and the reinforcer of the culture that Musk has imprinted. She is now President of SpaceX. To succeed, Gwynne has had to park her own ego at the company door. As Vance puts it: “Shotwell has been a consistent presence at SpaceX almost since day one, pushing the company forward and suppressing her ego to ensure that Musk gets all the attention he desires.”(7)
  • When I talked with my grandson about Shotwell, he commented, “I agree completely. Gwynne’s business and engineering instincts would make her an invaluable asset to any organization, and her emotional poise is so perfectly matched to Elon’s style that when one steps back, it is hard to imagine SpaceX enjoying its success today without her.”

The BIG question: Should we teach our students to be like Musk or Jobs?

My preliminary answer is, “Yes, but… not totally.” There are many elements in the Musk story that offer very important lessons for making us better entrepreneurs and better leaders. A total Musk is going to be rare. Not many of us have the prodigious brilliance of Musk’s mind, his ability to absorb and understand facts in so many fields, and his practically photographic memory. However, I contend that even if we did, Musk-ness needs to be tempered by a greater humanity and, in the end, such a combination would be more effective and powerful for the companies we are building.

Some of the other elements we should emulate are well-summarized at the end of Vance’s book:

Page [Larry Page, the founder of Google and a friend of Musk] holds Musk up as a model he wishes others would emulate — a figure that should be replicated during a time in which the businessmen and politicians have fixated on short-term, inconsequential goals. “I don’t think we’re doing a good job as a society deciding what things are really important to do,” Page said. “I think like we’re just not educating people in this kind of general way. You should have a pretty broad engineering and scientific background. You should have some leadership training and a bit of MBA training or knowledge of how to run things, organize stuff, and raise money. I don’t think most people are doing that, and it’s a big problem. Engineers are usually trained in a very fixed area. When you’re able to think about all of these disciplines together, you kind of think differently and can dream of much crazier things and how they might work. I think that’s really an important thing for the world. That’s how we make progress.”(8)

As I re-read my 2011 Jobs post, I am struck by how many of my points there also apply to the Musk story, as told by Vance. There is much for us to learn from both of these remarkable individuals, and, in Musk’s case, this is a continuing story.



2. Ashlee Vance Elon Musk, Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (EPub Edition MAY 2015)

3. Ricardo Levy Letters to a Young Entrepreneur: Succeeding in Business Without losing at Life (San Francisco, Catalytic Publishers, 2015) Chapter 7

4. Vance, Elon Musk, Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, EPub Edition page 240 of 392

5. Vance, Elon Musk, Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, EPub Edition page 84 of 392

6. Vance, Elon Musk, Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, EPub Edition page 57 of 392

(7) Vance, Elon Musk, Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, EPub Edition page 146 of 392

(8) Vance, Elon Musk, Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, EPub Edition page 152 of 392

8 thoughts on “MUST WE BE MUSK-ESQUE TO SUCCEED IN BREAKOUT ENTERPRISES? An entrepreneur’s reflections on Elon Musk’s creativity, capability and character

  1. Loved the piece- thanks for sending it on- remarkable man, Musk.

    Hope you are all well


    From: Ricardo Levy <> Reply-To: Ricardo Levy <> Date: Monday, February 19, 2018 at 11:28 AM To: Grant Heidrich <> Subject: [New post] MUST WE BE MUSK-ESQUE TO SUCCEED IN BREAKOUT ENTERPRISES? An entrepreneur’s reflections on Elon Musk’s creativity, capability and character

    ricardolevy posted: “On December 2, 2011 I posted an article titled “The Steve Jobs Paradox.” (1) It was prompted by the passing of Jobs, an event that touched me profoundly and motivated me to read Walter Isaacson’s Jobs biography, which appeared shortly after Steve’s death.”

  2. I think this statement is important:
    “Not many of us have the prodigious brilliance of Musk’s mind, his ability to absorb and understand facts in so many fields, and his practically photographic memory. However, I contend that even if we did, Musk-ness needs to be tempered by a greater humanity and, in the end, such a combination would be more effective and powerful for the companies we are building.”
    I have known a very few CEOs who had minds so brilliant they could process more information than the rest of us. They could control their organization at a level others cannot. A subset of this subset, were so successful they significantly grew their company and a paradox occurred. The growth of the company produced a system so complex they could no longer control it. In the ensuing crisis of identity, they had to embrace new, and for them radical, assumptions of leadership.
    Bob Quinn

    1. Thank you, Bob, for your comment. In one of our prior exchanges you used a wonderful expression to describe the ensuing crisis of identity: “it required a second birth.” In a way that has happened at Apple although it is not clear that anything they have done is as breakthrough as the iPhone. And the Musk story is still unfolding…


  3. Great piece…

    The two entrepreneurs you have some reservations emulating are truly in a class by themselves. Unique. Musk and Jobs are/were introverts, visionaries and are/were strengthened by monumental drivers (I believe these three traits are tightly yoked).

    As I read your piece this is was what I was visualizing – not really sure what it means but it helped me through your thinking:

    Also, by the time you strive to be like either of them it is probably already too late: if you’re a 20-something you are easily 15 years behind already…:)

    Perhaps it is helpful to see entrepreneurship and/or leadership using more normal folks. Move to the left on the curve. Your own drive, experiences and results are such a great story. Far more practical, attainable and closer to a model that is realistic. I hope you will teach that to your students.


  4. Ric,

    I’ve seen the “fail fast” theme many times over the years – and have embraced it.

    For me, there is a trick. That is “sensing” accurately where you have risk. What’s going to kick you in the butt? “Fail fast” means you must identify vulnerabilities quickly and test them.

    I pair “fail fast” with a comment a Johnson Controls exec once said to me and that is, “Think to both edges of a problem”. Broadening your perspective opens you to things INCLUDING that thing that could wipe you out.

    Nothing new here. But interesting how one phrase leads to another.


  5. Hi Ric:
    Love your new post on Musk. I think it’s right on the mark and presents important points for contemplation, consideration and possible actions for how we educate and how to successfully build new enterprises. Excellent job!
    It seems to me that Musk has some critical and rare attributes that have allowed him to succeed and will continue to do so. As you and Vance point out, he is not your typical entrepreneur. He has two big world-changing dreams, Tesla and Space X. With huge levels of personal financing, his unwavering commitment and a super-intellect, he has made incredible progress.
    Like Steve Jobs, essentially everything he has pursued with these two “dreams” is development and not discovery. You will recall that Jobs borrowed lots of ideas, discoveries and inventions from others (e.g., the mouse curser, sitting dormant on a shelf in the Palo Alto PARC Labs).
    Both development and discovery require creativity, but discovery requires a much higher level of creativity, immense insight and “out-of-the-box” thinking. The latter is the only means I know of to achieve the gigantic “ah ha” necessary to see the non-obvious–you quoted Albert Szent-Györgyi, “Looking at the same thing as everyone else, but seeing something different!”
    I think that having the brain-power, personal wealth and commitment of a Musk, even with all his “faults” [I use this word not to judge him, but to connect with the judgment of many contemporary leadership books concerning several of his apparent values.], one can definitely succeed.
    However, if you are in the discovery business, like finding a new drug, or a pollution-free combustion turbine, I don’t believe that kind of environment would work. There must be a respect for and a commitment to truth, compassion, knowledge, intellectual freedom, transparency and a culture where sound disagreement and questioning is encouraged. These values must permeate the fabric of the entire organization.
    Another common attribute of many successful developments is “fail fast, and then try a new approach.” Thomas Edison was the hallmark of this approach, which has always been one of the fundamental underpinnings of all driven, committed and impatient inventors.
    Musk doesn’t seem to be a charismatic guy. I suspect that those bright and talented employees who stay with his enterprises and are not fired, do so because they have a kind of fundamental admiration for his brilliance, his prior successes (credibility), the fact that he is often (but like Jobs, not always) correct and his willingness to put large chunks of his personal wealth behind what he believes in. That’s not a formula available to most entrepreneurial enterprises.
    So, I guess that every once in a while the world will see an Elan Musk or a Steve Jobs pop up and put a significant “dent in the universe,” but the rest of us not-so-super bright entrepreneurs have to embrace time-tested entrepreneurial values that have been shown over and over again to work in order to create something new, exciting and thereby make a difference in the world. I think we need both kinds of approaches.


  6. Jim, thank you very much for your insight. You comment about discovery vs development has helped me clarify my thinking. It makes me realize that my vantage point, as yours, is discovery-centered, even though you and I, since we first started Catalytica, had an eye and a deep thirst for development and commercialization. Our “first love” was discovery and that certainly influences my thinking. This is why I could not phantom a Catalytica without trust, transparency, and deep regard for our colleagues, many much more talented than you or I. Without that attitude and culture I do not think we would have succeeded. While we went the distance and grew a significant company, perhaps in the latter stages we could have used some more “hardness” and maybe that would have brought us to commercial success sooner. On the other hand, it would not have been as satisfying a place to work.

  7. Ricardo,
    Thank you for sharing this very reflective piece.
    You raise some many complicated and interwoven questions about both of these men and their respective leadership styles. Here are a few of my thoughts, humbly offered ; I have not studied the subject as deeply as you:
    1.Both were passionate about their world changing visions…..and in the case of Musk, still is.
    2.Both had to recover from HUGE early failures, and in the case of Jobs, he was initially betrayed by corporate cultures that did not share his vision, nor his passion. In time, he was brought back to finish what he had started….VERY successfully.
    3.NOTHING ensures “followership” more than SUCCESS. Everyone wants to be on the winning team…..for as long as it continues to win. “Followers” are willing to forgive their leaders for almost anything, except FAILURE, that is.

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