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Are They Brilliant or Brutal? Management Lessons From Elon Musk and Steve Jobs

Why do genius CEOs like Jobs and Musk treat their people so harshly? The answer yields valuable lessons for anyone leading a team.

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Few entrepreneurs have impacted the world as much as Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. 

At Apple, Jobs influenced how the world would communicate, work, and entertain themselves for years to come. Musk has led Tesla to the forefront of the electric automobile industry, shooting up the company’s share price and adding pressure on legacy automakers to keep up–all while running a separate company that’s literally reaching for the stars.

But leading this type of innovation doesn’t come easy. 

For example, consider Jobs, who was perceived by many as arrogant and narcissistic. Wild stories circulated of how Jobs would speak down to others, some from his own family. When his biographer, Walter Isaacson, asked Jobs for the reasons behind his mean streak, Jobs simply replied: “This is who I am, and you can’t expect me to be someone I’m not.”

Musk has developed a similar reputation over the years. An extensive 2018 Wired piece shared details of Musk’s tendency to fire employees on the spot if they didn’t live up to his expectations. Tesla responded by calling the story and “overly-dramatic and sensationalized tale”; however, Musk himself has admitted to having extremely high standards, once infamously tweeting:

“There are way easier places to work, but nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.”

Over the past several years, I’ve spent a lot of time studying both Jobs and Musk, along with their respective management styles. I’ve analyzed their actions and messaging, through emails and company-wide memos that are part of the public record. I’ve pored over dozens of interviews, in video and in print. I’ve also spoken to former employees–some on the record and others off. 

There’s a lot of value to extract from studying Musk and Jobs. Both were known for having incredibly high standards, and for inspiring their colleagues to do brilliant work.

But there are also lessons to be learned from studying what I like to call the “dark side” of each of these leaders’ management styles. And it has much to do with the concept of emotional intelligence: the ability to identify, understand, and manage emotions.

Why Jobs and Musk can seem so harsh

While Jobs and Musk share a number of similarities–both extremely passionate about the companies they’ve run, both masters of reaching consumers on an emotional level–they’re also different in many ways. 

Let’s start with Jobs. Although Jobs claimed to lack self-control, his biographer thought differently. Isaacson spent countless hours with Jobs in the process of writing his most famous work. He interviewed more than a hundred of the famous entrepreneur’s friends, relatives, colleagues, and even competitors.

Isaacson’s conclusion was that when Jobs hurt others, it wasn’t because he lacked emotional awareness. “Quite the contrary,” writes Isaacson. “He could size people up, understand their inner thoughts, and know how to relate to them, cajole them, or hurt them at will.” 

In other words, it seems that Jobs would often use his abilities to read emotions and push buttons to manipulate others, to help achieve his goals.

What about Musk?

If you watch countless hours of interviews with Musk and his employees as I have, two things stand out.

First, Musk is driven by a desire to accomplish big things. From inspiring the world to changing the way it uses natural resources, and from reaching the far depths of space to finding a way to seamlessly splice artificial and human intelligence, Musk finds purpose in trying to drive humanity forward.

Second, Musk strives to solve problems using logic first, emotion second. That’s not to say Musk is immune to falling victim to his emotions. He’s proven otherwise on multiple occasions.  

However, it appears that Musk attempts to control his emotions to make decisions for the good of his companies. Is a process holding the company back? Change it. Is an employee’s work less than extraordinary? Fire them.  

The problem is, this approach easily leaves some employees feeling that Musk is unfeeling or uncaring–that he’s a heartless CEO who is willing to cut hard-working employees over a single mistake.

Tesla argues the opposite is true.

“Elon cares very deeply about the people who work at his companies,” a company spokesperson once said (in response to the aforementioned Wired story). “That is why, although it is painful, he sometimes takes the difficult step of firing people who are underperforming and putting the success of the entire company” at risk.

On the surface, both Musk’s and Jobs’s management styles have seemed to work. After all, Jobs managed to turn Apple around, transforming it to one of the most valuable companies on the planet. And Tesla has catapulted to the top of the automotive industry, having been recently named the most valuable car company in the world. (Not to forget Musk managed to do this while simultaneously serving as CEO of SpaceX.)

But there are important lessons here for business leaders.

Yes, Tesla is performing well. I attribute much of this to the fact that Elon Musk is a genius. But is Tesla’s performance sustainable? Even Musk’s most loyal employees admit that it’s difficult to keep pace with their CEO without burning out. And the data indicates an extremely high turnover rate for executives who report directly to Musk.

What if Musk could build more trust and balance into Tesla’s culture? What if he could encourage great minds to stay longer, allowing them–and him–to grow from the experience?

And while Apple made it to the top, Jobs injured a lot of relationships along the way. Was it worth it? Would Jobs have changed some things if he could go back and do them again? 

There’s no doubt about the brilliance of Musk or Jobs, no shortage of their accomplishments. But as much value as there is in learning from the way they’ve done things, there’s even more in considering what you’d do differently.

The most comprehensive study of well-being in history, a Harvard initiative that spans over 80 years, has led researchers to conclude that it is good relationships–with family, friends, and other loved ones–that leads to happier and healthier lives.

And the happier and healthier you are, the more opportunity you have to do work that matters–for a much longer period of time.

So, ask yourself: 

  • How would I describe my relationships with others?
  • How would they describe their relationship with me?
  • What kind of legacy am I building?

You may find the answers to those questions will greatly influence your own management style. Because before you try to change the world, you have to make sure you’re headed in the right direction.

Enjoy this post? Check out my book, EQ Applied, which uses fascinating research and compelling stories to illustrate what emotional intelligence looks like in everyday life.

A version of this article originally appeared on Inc.com.

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