It was Black Friday, so a lot of people were shopping. Not me; I was traveling with my family for the holiday in Massachusetts. My daughter and I swam in the hotel pool, then we had lunch with a good friend and his wife, and then a family dinner at my sister's house.

It was a nice day. And, as I later learned, it was very different from what Elon Musk was doing.

Because the Friday after Thanksgiving was the day on which Musk reportedly sent an alarming all-hands email to employees at SpaceX.

He warned them that the situation at the company was dire, and that he needed everyone back at work, and that if they wanted SpaceX to avoid bankruptcy within the next year or so, they'd need to show up, pitch in, and turn things around, fast.

"Quite frankly, a disaster"

Here's part of  what he reportedly wrote:

I was going to take this weekend off, as my first weekend off in a long time, but instead I will be on the Raptor line all night and through the weekend.

Unless you have critical family matters or cannot physically return to Hawthorne, we need all hands on deck to recover from what is, quite frankly, a disaster.

The context? SpaceX was apparently having difficulty building enough of the company's heavy-duty Raptor engines, which are needed to launch SpaceX's next-generation Starship space launch system. As Musk put it:

  • Not enough Raptors would mean SpaceX couldn't maintain its planned cadence of a Starship blast off every two weeks next year
  • Not enough launches would then mean that not enough of its second-version Starlink satellites could reach orbit
  • Not enough satellites in orbit would affect the company's financial position very negatively

There's a bit more to the background: Musk puts the blame for the Raptor shortage on "exiting prior senior management," and says that issues with production "turned out to be far more severe than was reported." 

And he added at the very end of the email: 

What it comes down to is that we face genuine risk of bankruptcy if we cannot achieve a Starship flight rate of at least once every two weeks next year.

Thanks,
Elon

"Bankruptcy, while still unlikely, is not impossible"

Now, we don't know how many SpaceX employees didn't have "critical family matters" and took Musk up on his invitation to "physically return to Hawthorne" (the company's headquarters in Hawthorne, California) so quickly.

By this week, however, after the internal email had leaked and been reported on outside of SpaceX, Musk made a few comments that seemed to walk back the urgency a tiny bit, including -- where else? -- on Twitter. 

"If a severe global recession were to dry up capital availability / liquidity while SpaceX was losing billions on Starlink & Starship, then bankruptcy, while still unlikely, is not impossible," he wrote, noting that both GM and Chrysler needed bankruptcy protection during the last recession, and then quoting Andy Grove: "Only the paranoid survive."

More succinctly, he had a three-word answer when another person on Twitter asked him, "Uh, how's the raptor thing going?

Musk's reply: "It's getting fixed."

No other way to do it

There's an element of déjà vu here, because we've seen time and again that Musk knows how to create urgency and drive people to achieve results--even specifically using employee emails.

I wrote about some of these at length in my free e-book Elon Musk Has Very Big Plans. If you were paying attention a few years ago, you might recall:

  • Musk sent an all-hands email to everyone at Tesla, warning that his car company was burning through cash too fast, and that as a result, either he or Tesla's CFO would henceforth review "every expenditure at Tesla, no matter how small ... including parts, salary, travel expenses, rent, literally every payment that leaves our bank account."
  • Or when Musk told Tesla employees that their company was not going to be among those that could "offer a better work-life balance," because Tesla's goals "requir[ed] extreme effort and relentless creativity," and because "succeeding in our mission is essential to ensure that the future is good."

Tesla is worth roughly 15 times now what it was when Musk wrote those employee emails. So, you can say whether it worked. 

But I have to add: I would not want to work for Musk.

I find him fascinating to follow and write about, but I would much rather live the life I described at the start of this article -- being the guy who certainly works hard and provides for his family, but who spends time with his daughter at the hotel pool, and goes to lunch and dinner with friends and family, rather than work literally every day, especially on holidays like Thanksgiving.

But if you are the kind of leader who aspires to build companies with the kinds of goals and the levels of success to which Musk aspires, I can't imagine there's any other way to do it.

"Not because they are easy, but because they are hard"

After writing about these subjects for more than a decade, I've come to realize that the number one most-important thing a leader can do for his or her team is to give them a cause that is worth their efforts.

Obviously, other things matter too. But on a very deep level, people understand that we only get a finite amount of time on this planet. So, if you want a team to commit truly to what you're asking them to do, you have to show them, over and over, that it's actually worth it.

The trap some leaders fall into when they try to create those conditions, however, is that they want to tell their people both that they'll do great things--and that they'll do so without rancor or pain.

I suppose we all might like to hear that we'll change history or cause a breakthrough in technology or improve the human condition--while all the time making it look easy.

That's not what Musk is doing here--or what he did at Tesla. I think his approach channels something like what President Kennedy said when he announced the goal of sending astronauts to the moon: 

We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills ...

The urgency approach

That's the lesson at the core of this, and one that Musk has proved repeatedly that he understands better than almost anyone in business today.

Call it the urgency approach. It's the approach that says that what we're trying is very hard, and if we don't attack with purpose right now, to the detriment of all else, we won't succeed.

It's the approach that led Musk, by his own report, to work 120-hour weeks during the hardest times at Tesla. (Keep in mind there are only 168 hours in a week to begin with.)

Is it sustainable? Is it avoidable? Is it even enjoyable, in a holistic way? I don't think we can answer that. But the one thing we know for sure is: It's pure Elon Musk.