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What We Can Learn About How NOT to Lead From Elon Musk

A Yale leadership scholar explains how you — and Musk — can up your management game.

Photo credit: David McNew/AFP/Getty Images
Photo credit: David McNew/AFP/Getty Images

Wired’s exposé of the inner workings of Tesla and the combative leadership style of its infamously mercurial leader, Elon Musk — titled “Dr. Elon & Mr. Musk: Life Inside Tesla’s Production Hell” — starts with a harrowing anecdote. In a very public manner, Musk allegedly berated and fired a young Tesla engineer, who he believed made a foolish mistake, with these explosive words: “You’re a f*cking idiot! Get the f*ck out and don’t come back!” the tech magazine reports an anonymous source as saying.

Charles Duhigg, the reporter of the piece, vividly brings to life a megalomaniacal genius who struggles to regulate his emotions (probably because he works 120 hours a week and never sleeps!), bullies underlings and executives by challenging their intelligence and competence for any perceived error or misstep, expects perfection and a sickening level of deference (one guy alleges he was told to hunch down more in meetings!), and demands people to work at a herculean pace for an exhausting duration. (Tesla declined to comment in the Wired piece, but the company and its CEO “objected to the reporting and how questions were being asked.”)

Not everyone in Musk’s professional milieu, however, finds his style — some of which we’ve all witnessed with his many public antics — offensive. In fact, according to Duhigg’s reporting, some find his perfectionism inspiring, like Tesla’s former general counsel Todd Maron: “He’s someone who empowers you to be better than you think you can be,” he told the magazine.

Musk, undoubtedly, exhibits several qualities worthy of our admiration. His innovation, hard work, and ambition has brought us Tesla’s affordable electric cars, reusable unmanned space capsules and one day, he may take us to Mars, or from New York to California in 45 minutes, but Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, Ph.D., a senior associate dean in the Yale School of Management and president and founder of Chief Executive Leadership Institute, surmises that he’ll burn out and blow up his enterprises if he doesn’t improve his leadership skills.

With Brad Agle, Ph.D., a professor of ethics and leadership in the Marriott School of Management at Brigham Young University, Sonnenfeld isolated five characteristics of leaders that can predict 18 to 20 percent of a company’s performance — personal dynamism, empathy, morality, ambition, and courage. “Musk performs disastrously on two of them, and spottily on one, which will sabotage, derail, and undermine his long-term performance and sustainability,” Sonnenfeld says. Here’s what you can learn from how Musk succeeds and fails as a leader:

Personal Dynamism

“Like Donald Trump, Musk gets annoyingly great scores on this one,” says Sonnenfeld, describing the South African-born engineer’s seeming omnipresence, accessibility, and high energy as markers of his widespread appeal. “You know, he’s down there sleeping on the shop floor, he’s engaged in social media, and uses evocative language” that rallies and amps people up. Such as when he previously told Wired about his SpaceX enterprise, which ultimately aims to enable humans to exist on other planets: “Optimism, pessimism, f*ck that. We’re going to make it happen. As God is my bloody witness, I’m hell-bent on making it work.”

Empathy

Sonnenfeld says empathic leadership includes recognizing and respecting your team’s contribution and performance, as well as exhibiting concern for their well-being. Musk, according to Duhigg’s reporting, fails spectacularly on this front. “Guess what? This is not his greatest strength,” Sonnenfeld jokes, “He’s terrible on this one. His style breeds a huge amount of resentment and hostility,” which will ultimately compel his top talent to seek work elsewhere.

Morality

Sonnenfeld, the author of Firing Back: How Great Leaders Rebound After Career Disasters, a book Musk may want to peruse one day, defines this value as one’s “authenticity, believability, and credibility,” and argues that Musk misses the mark on this one too. “You can’t believe him. His messaging to the outside world is not truthful and the moral example that he sets by attacking journalists, analysts and employees, is terrible.”

Ambition

Musk gets a checkered assessment in this category. Sonnenfeld points out that while he sets high inspirational goals, they’re so out of reach that they “frustrate as well as motivate.” The scale of his ambitions is so out of proportion with what a normal mortal can achieve (ie. humans colonizing space, for one!), those tasked with executing his impossible vision become burned out, demoralized and frustrated that they can’t meet his standards. “It’s a double edged sword,” says Sonnenfeld.

Courage

A certain amount of hubris — what Sonnenfeld calls “an irrational faith in one’s own capabilities” — is the engine that fuels innovative risk-taking and is essential to any entrepreneur’s success. “The odds are against them succeeding rationally, so they have to have an unrealistic sense of their own efficacy to beat the odds.” Musk possesses an ample amount of outsized self-assurance, which has powered his more daring pursuits, but in this second phase of Tesla’s development, Sonnenfeld argues, he needs to reign it in. If he doesn’t he’s likely to “take himself and the company off a cliff.”

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