The book ‘Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the quests for a fantastic future’ by Ashlee Vance is a biography of one of the most prominent organisational leaders in Silicon Valley: Elon Musk. Vance is a renowned writer in technology today, which explains his decision to author a book about Musk’s technological accomplishments. As a biography, the book has offered selected life stories of Elon Musk, most of which form the highlight of his (Musk’s) endeavours spanning from Africa to Canada and the United States’ Silicon Valley. The book begins with a story of how Vance managed to land the chance to write the book after so many others had failed to convince Musk. Additionally, the first encounter between Musk and Vance offers the audience the first hint of the type of person Musk was. He like persistence as explained by the statement “…he respects people who continue on after being told no” (Vance, 2015, p. 2). Additionally, he may also be a person who likes to control outcomes of situations as manifested by his desire to add footnotes to ensure the factual accuracy of his life story.
As a biography, it would be expected that the book would follow a certain order that reflects a progression of events from his birth to the current stage of his life. As expected, Vance (2019, p. 13) offers such a background, although a very brief one. Musk was born in 1971 and grew up in Pretoria, South Africa. Life was not always easy for him because he grew up in a tumultuous time of apartheid. The challenges he faced may have turned him into the person he is. He experienced pain and suffering and his dreams were often curtailed by his environment. Musk has the privilege of traveling abroad, which gave him an idea of how South Africa was perceived by the outside world. Even though he had other privileges in life offered by his White Afrikaner culture, he often resorted to a geeky personality. Musk believed he could achieve his dreams if he moved to the United States, a country he perceived as the land of opportunity. However, it is important to acknowledge that his accomplishments had already started to manifest themselves while still in South Africa.
As a person more interested in technology, the author has offered only a brief glimpse of Musk’s youth. The core of the book concentrates on the time when Musk started to make headlines due to his ambitions and innovations. For example, the second chapter, Africa, begins with a statement from the author that the public first heard of Elon Musk in 1984 through a trade publication that had featured one of Musk’s earlier creations, Blastar. However, what caught the eyes of most readers was the story of Musk’s dreams and ambitions or ‘grand conquests’ as Vance (2015, p. 13) calls them. From this point going forward, the author has made several references and revealed many stories of Musk’s youth throughout the following chapters. The family life and the people he grew up with have featured to add to the already interesting story of an upcoming technological genius. His life in Canada, the first start-up, and other tales leading to electric cars and space exploration have been comprehensively covered in the book, which should make it an interesting read.
Leadership Traits, Behaviours, and Characteristics
Prominent leaders are often self-motivated, which makes it possible for them to push towards their goals despite multiple setbacks. This statement sums up what Elon Musk embodies from a young age to the present. Self-motivation often begins with ambitious goals followed by a drive to achieve them. From a young age, Musk believed that he would become great and that the only way he could achieve this was to go to the land of opportunities: the United States. Vance (2015, p. 22) highlights how the motivation to go to the United States led a 17-year-old Musk to leave South Africa for Canada. However, there may be two sides to the story: first, using his Canadian ancestry would accelerate the possibility of going to the United States. Second, Musk did not want to be a part of the apartheid regime by serving in the military. His decisiveness on critical matters of his life illustrates how self-motivated he was.
Many of Musk’s achievements can be attributed to his high levels of self-motivation. In his early days in Silicon Valley, when the Web was just a novel idea, Musk was determined to conquer it and to find good business opportunities that were worth dropping out of school for. He may have convinced his brother, Kimbal, to follow him, which illustrates how assured he was that there was something with the internet that could make them successful. His motivation saw Musk experiment with multiple ideas until his first start-up was established. It is important to highlight that many of the accomplishments have been in areas where others have failed of where many believed there were no possibilities. For example, electric cars were an idea that many believed was not possible or easy to commercialize. Through his motivation, Tesla Model S was produced, a car that outclasses most luxury sedans on the market in such areas as mileage, raw speed, storage space, and handling (Vance, 2015, p. 150). The SpaceX program has also been conceived from such levels of self-motivation and the tendency of Musk to believe that everything is possible.
Ability to Motivate Others
Motivation does not end with the leaders themselves but they also transmit the same to the followers. Musk’s achievement may have been driven by his ambition but the presence of people who bought into his ideas and remained hyped to pursue what would normally seem impossible show high levels of motivation. Vance (2015, p. 184) states that a few years ago many people would have dismissed Musk as a person who hypes up robots or jetpacks or whatever else on which Silicon Valley was fixated. However, after accumulating several accomplishments, Musk managed to transform himself from a big talker to a doer. Many examples can be used to illustrate the author’s position, especially considering that Musk’s ideas have always been novel. Musk believed that it was possible to build an all-electric car but it was only after he built Tesla that most people believed him. The SpaceX program offers a similar illustration because it was among the first private space exploration programs to launch astronauts to space. Therefore, all people workers under Musk must be motivated enough to believe that his nearly impossible dreams are achievable.
However, it is important to acknowledge that Musk’s success has been predicated on his ability to find talented people who are ready to pursue aspiring objectives. According to Vance (2015, p. 184), Musk’s companies have been designed with his “vision of motivating a critical mass of talented people to work on aspiring things.” Therefore, a combination of motivation and talent has been the key to Musk’s great achievements. Motivating employees at such companies as SpaceX and Tesla is deemed critical because the likelihood of failure is usually high and the staff members would often be inclined to protect their reputation. His companies may not be the largest in the respective industries but the workers have always followed Musk and given their full commitment. Cases of failure are common, especially with the initial attempts to launch SpaceX’s rockets. However, the fact that Musk and his staff did not give up indicates that all parties must have been highly motivated to achieve their objectives. The commitment levels have been illustrated by such people as Steve Davies, a director at SpaceX who works sixteen hours a day.
Knowledge and Experience
Knowledge and experience are part of a leader’s characteristic that allows him or her to exude confidence and to help the followers understand what is needed of them. Musk is an educated person, both through the formal education systems and through personal efforts to understand areas he is interested in. His knowledgeability has been summarized by Kevin Watson, who has worked with Musk on multiple projects within the SpaceX program. Watson described Musk as a brilliant person who understands everything. When he asks a question, he is looking for specifics that go all the way down to the fundamental rules of physics. Watson is astounded by Musk’s wealth of information acquired over the years. (Vance, 2015, p. 137). Therefore, it can be argued that leadership requires a knowledgeable person who understands all the operations of the organization. As an inventor and initiator of most projects within his companies, Musk’s knowledge has allowed him to guide his staff members and drive them towards greatness.
The knowledge Musk has accumulated can be attributed to his ability to learn and utilize information. For example, Vance (2015, p. 60) states that SpaceX was run using the start-up techniques that Musk had learned in Silicon Valley. If one was to search the word ‘learn’ in the book, many of its usages have been associated with Musk trying to gain the knowledge he needed to accomplish something. Examples include he learned how not to deal with people older than him, learning to modify his behaviour, and learning to fly. His journey through life can be characterized as an endeavour characterized by knowledge gathering and information-seeking. It can be argued that anyone can have dreams but only those with the relevant knowledge can build on them. Musk’s early encounters with technology form the backbone of his experience. His companies can be described as tech start-ups, including PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX. As a leader, this experience has helped Musk guide his employees and get the most from them.
A leader needs to have a good attitude to convince followers about the direction that he envisions for the organization. A good attitude is likely to be emulated by followers, which would help solve even the most complex problems to drive the company forward. Several examples of how attitude played a role in Musk’s career can be outlined. Doris Downes, a director at Zip2, explains how Musk dismissed complaints that some of the technical changes were impossible. Musk stated that he did not care, implying that he does not take no for an answer and wants everyone around him to share his mindset. (Vance, 2015, p. 36). Musk’s attitude is that anything is possible and achievable and expects to have staff members who believe the same. Tesla and SpaceX are two highly successful ventures that no ordinary entrepreneur or investor would have dared to attempt. The automotive industry had tried to produce all-electric cars but their success was limited. With Musk’s attitude that it was possible, Tesla has become a global icon, and many more firms can ride on Tesla’s breakthrough technologies.
A good attitude is also a necessity for a leader trending on very risky grounds as manifested by the nature of Musk’s ventures. Novel ideas are likely to fail more than once before a breakthrough can be achieved. The wrong attitude would cause entire ventures to collapse due to loss of faith and hope. For Musk, failures in SpaceX were rampant, for example, computers would fail and launch attempts. Even entire start-ups failed but Vance (2015, p. 102) states that when something failed must would just try a new approach. The never-give-up attitude embodies the personality of Elon Musk and explains why he has reached this far. Additionally, a good attitude is important because it helps one deal with criticism. According to Vance (2015, p. 152), electric cars have been the subject of criticism for decades but this did not deter Musk from attempting to build them. Lastly, his contributions to such start-ups as PayPal have been criticized but Musk overcame all of it and moved forward to building his own successful ventures. All his achievements can be attributed to his attitude and how well he has approached hurdles.
A good leader needs to have long-term thinking, which can be equated to having a clear vision for the organization. Much of Musk’s life has been built around his boyhood ambitions that he has successfully pursued. Even in his current plans, it is possible to establish that Musk likes to have long-term plans for his ventures. Hollman is one of the people who have worked with Musk and have “warmed to the long-term thinking behind Musk’s Washington plan” (Vance, 2015, p. 67). This leadership trait is critical because it offers a direction for an organization and galvanizes the workers towards it. Indeed, even the failures did not force Musk to deviate from his long-term thinking. This can be manifested by the events surrounding the early development of both Tesla and SpaceX when Gracias states that even when decisions went wrong, Musk would still make very clear long-term decisions. Therefore, a good leader stays focused on the future, sets futuristic objectives, and gets the staff to follow in the long-term journey.
Electric cars have been seen for decades as something of the future. Additionally, many people express that space will one day open up to mass travel when the necessary vessels have been developed. Space travel is slowly becoming a reality under Elon Musk, which also serves to illustrate this leader’s long-term thinking. Vance (2015, p. 162) has even labelled Musk “the ultimate long-term thinker” who often receives second-guessing from most investors who focus on the short-term gains. At times, Tesla’s financial situation would be worrisome but Musk believes that in the long run his objectives will be achieved. He believes in the possibility of the planet operating on green energy only and the all-electric cars are an illustration that he will keep thinking long-term and follow his dreams relentlessly. If he can get people to become equally enthused about the long-term plans, then Musk’s ventures will help resolve many future problems the planet faces.
Planning and Time management
Modern corporate leaders are often very busy people, which means that they have to manage and plan their time effectively. This is more of a behavioural characteristic where individuals try to fit in as many activities as possible within a limited time. One of Vance’s (2015, p. 11) visits to Musk land can help explain how this behaviour is important for a leader. At around 8 p.m. on Friday, Musk was planning to gather people close to him and nannies to board a private jet and meet drivers to take him to a friend’s campsite. He then had to go trekking over the weekend, unwind, then fly to Los Angeles on Sunday afternoon, then to New York, where he would appear on Monday morning shows and conduct meetings and emails. He would fly back to Los Angeles on Tuesday, work at SpaceX, visit San Jose’s tesla factory, and fly to Washington, D.C. Musk can accomplish so many things within such a short time, which explains how leaders are meant to behave. Anyone who plans to have a life journey and successful leadership similar to that of Musk will need time management skills.
The list of leadership traits, behaviours, and characteristics described above is not conclusive and there are multiple other ways to classify Musk’s leadership. People close to Elon Musk have mostly admired him despite a few difficulties he poses to his followers. As a student hoping to find a career in a certain industry, would I want to work with or under Elon Musk? The answer to this question is affirmative because of the many traits that I admire and others I would have to live with. For example, it has been mentioned in the abstract that Musk is someone who likes to be in control. However, he ventures into risky areas and it would be difficult to delegate too many duties without the fear that some wrong decisions would be made. Therefore, one can present an argument that Musk’s vision for the future seems very compelling and irresistible.
Leadership styles fall under different categories and theories that have been well-researched in literature. According to Mascareño, Rietzschel, and Wisse (2019, p. 35), the visionary leadership style involves the leader articulating where the organization is headed rather than how. Therefore, visionary leaders set people free to make the necessary innovations, experiments, and take calculated risks to achieve at the destination (Yauney, 2018, p. 2). This description fits Musk in a nutshell because his long-term thinking described above outlines mostly what he seeks to achieve. The direction and means are often deliberated through brainstorming sessions, which means that Musk cares more about the destination rather than the route. The fact that Musk can listen to staff means that anyone with novel ideas can enjoy working with or under him. If someone has similar tendencies to Musk, especially regarding innovation, Musk would be the best leader to follow because one’s ideas will be given attention by the leader. For example, many people today agree that green energy is a necessity for sustainability and environmental protection reasons. In this case, Elon Must would be the leader most interested in the ideas as both an inventor and entrepreneur.
Motivation is another reason why working with Musk would be desirable. As mentioned earlier, some of his current ventures are geared towards a cleaner future. As an advocate of the same vision, Musk’s enthusiasm to offer solutions would be the key motivation (Gayathri & Kumari, 2019, p. 1523). Observing Musk closely reveals that he will continue to create start-ups that address some of the critical problems faced by humanity. He has handled solar energy and now he has built electric cars. His journey towards green alternatives to energy will hopefully not end with electric cars, which means that it is exciting to be part of his next breakthrough technological innovation. Musk does not believe in impossibilities, which should drive his workers to keep innovating and experimenting with new ideas. This attitude can be transmitted to workers, especially those who love to take on challenges. Working with Elon Musk can be a form of an adventure even though one would have to deal with the pressure that he exerts on his employees. Given an opportunity, I would like to work with Musk one day and become part of his growing list of accomplishments.
Gayathri, S. and Kumari, D. (2019) ‘Electric vehicles – an introduction of the Tesla for strategy and leadership’, International Journal of Recent Technology and Engineering, 8(2S8), pp. 1522-1524.
Mascareño, J., Rietzschel, E. and Wisse, B. (2019) ‘Envisioning innovation: does visionary leadership engender team innovative performance through goal alignment?’, Creativity and Innovation Management, 29(1), pp. 33-48.
Vance, A. (2015) Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the quests for a fantastic future. New York: HarperCollins.
Yauney, R. (2018) ‘Leadership development: a study of Elon Musk’, Marriott Student Review, 2(2), pp. 1-3.