In the book, Elon Musk (Harper Collins, 2015), journalist Ashlee Vance traces the Tesla founder's journey to becoming one of the most-talked about entrepreneurs. As Vance notes, even as Musk was gaining recognition for his innovative ideas, he alienated employees with his abrasive personal style. In the following edited excerpt, Musk tells Vance how he learned to become a more effective leader.
Despite the eventual successes of SpaceX, PayPal and Tesla Motors, Elon Musk admits he wasn’t a natural born leader. His first company, Zip 2, was effectively his first leadership training ground.
"I had never really run a team of any sort before," Musk said. “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."
"So, if I know a certain set of things, and I talk to a replica of myself but only communicate half the information, you can’t expect that the replica would come to the same conclusion. You have to put yourself in a position where you say, ‘Well, how would this sound to them, knowing what they know?’ ”
Employees at Zip2 would go home at night, come back, and find that Musk had changed their work without talking to them, and Musk’s confrontational style did more harm than good. “Yeah, we had some very good software engineers at Zip2, but I mean, I could code way better than them. And I’d just go in and fix their fucking code,” Musk said.
“I would be frustrated waiting for their stuff, so I’m going to go and fix your code and now it runs five times faster, you idiot. There was one guy who wrote a quantum mechanics equation, a quantum probability on the board, and he got it wrong. I’m like, ‘How can you write that?’ Then I corrected it for him. He hated me after that. Eventually, I realized, Okay, I might have fixed that thing but now I’ve made the person unproductive. It just wasn’t a good way to go about things.”
Musk, the dot-com striver, had been both lucky and good. He had a decent idea, turned it into a real service, and came out of the dot-com tumult with cash in his pockets, which was better than what many of his compatriots could say. The process had been painful.
Musk had yearned to be a leader, but the people around him struggled to see how an abrasive Musk as the CEO could work. As far as Musk was concerned, they were all wrong, and he set out to prove his point--with what would end up being even more dramatic results.