It must be lonely being Elon Musk.
That's why I did a double-take when I heard Musk, on the eve of the historic NASA launch of two astronauts aboard a SpaceX spacecraft, say something incredibly mature, self-aware, powerful, and flat-out right.
"I'm the chief engineer of this thing, so I'd just like to say that if it goes right, it's credit to the SpaceX-NASA team," Musk told CBS This Morning before the initial launch date Thursday. "If it goes wrong, it's my fault."
Those last seven words are the key: If it goes wrong, it's my fault.
Look, anything Musk says instantly becomes meta. Despite all the trouble his words sometimes cause him (see: "pedo guy" and "funding secured"), I'm convinced he almost always knows and understands the context.
That's why I consider, but ultimately set aside, the fact that Musk clearly seems to have rehearsed this line and planned to say it to NASA officials at the very outset of his CBS interview.
That's OK. Because it's right. It's uncomfortable at times, but if you want to lead people successfully, you need to be willing to do two things:
- share the credit, and
- take the blame.
That second part can be painful. It's beyond the comfort level of many leaders. But if they're sincere and follow through, it's also what separates some good leaders from the truly great ones.
As a bit of a history nerd, the antecedent for Musk's statement that immediately popped into my mind was the contingency announcement that General Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote in advance of D-Day in 1944, in case the invasion failed.
Eisenhower's draft statement read in part:
The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.
Thankfully, that contingency was moot, and certainly we hope and pray that Musk's contingency here will be moot as well -- and that there will be a safe, successful launch Saturday. (The original launch scheduled for Thursday was delayed.)
But if I were one of the two astronauts sitting aboard the Falcon 9 rocket, I'd feel just a little bit better knowing that Musk at least professes to take the responsibility so personally.
Maybe doubly so, considering the (completely unrelated) explosion of an unmanned next-generation Starship rocket on Friday.
"It weighs very heavily. It's really all I can think about right now," he said in the same interview. "I have to kind of mentally block it because otherwise it would be emotionally impossible to deal with."