10 Great Leadership Lessons from Elon Musk II

Leadership Elon Musk

Our previous post shared the first half of the 10 great leadership lessons we obtained from reading Elon Musk, the 2023 biography by Walter Isaacson. Isaacson shadowed Musk for two years, attended his meetings, walked his factories with him, and spent hours interviewing Musk, his friends and family, coworkers, and adversaries. Here are the final five lessons to conclude our summary of the 10 great leadership lessons from Elon Musk.

Set More Aggressive Goals

Musk believes a maniacal sense of urgency is his operating principle. Here is a typical example:

Musk: “Our Twitter servers cost too much. How long will it take you to move the servers from California to Oregon.”

Manager: “We can’t get out safely for 6-9 months.”

Musk, after a few moments of thought: “You have ninety days to do it. If you can’t make that work, your resignation is accepted.”

The next morning, Musk and his cousin: “Why don’t we do it right now.”

They flew to California, bought AirTags for tracking, hired movers, and began moving the 5,200 servers that day. They encountered a few issues but were able to show that it could be done in less than 90 days.

Musk knew there were 5,200 servers to move hundreds of miles. He knew they would need to be careful, coordinate the move, etc. As he considered the issue, he knew it would take him much less than 6-9 months. So, he rejected the answer.

“If a timeline is long, it’s wrong.”

– Elon Musk

The lesson for me and you: never accept initial answers on timelines, costs, and results. Always consider the answer yourself using first principles thinking. Break complex problems into their fundamental components and then rebuild them from scratch. This approach encourages critical thinking, challenges the status quo, and often results in innovative solutions.

Control Value Chain

Learn By Failing

Musk embraces failure as a learning opportunity. He is never satisfied with the status quo and is always looking for ways to improve his businesses and make them more efficient. This growth mindset is crucial for overcoming challenges and achieving long-term goals.

Lean East helps organizations learn improvement processes focused on learning from failure.

“It’s okay to be wrong; just don’t be overconfident and wrong.”

– Elon Musk

Communicate Clearly And Directly

Communication Clearly - Leadership Elon Musk

Musk speaks in a direct, technical, and unfeeling style. One reason for this is that he is leading multiple companies and doesn’t have time for anything else. His style has led to many (maybe most) of the leaders he has worked with resigning or quitting since they never meet his expectations or work as hard as he does. To combat this, Musk has hired leaders (at SpaceX and X, for example) who clean up some of the messes he makes.

I do not recommend leaders act exactly like Musk, nor do I try to copy his brusque style. I do believe leaders should communicate more clearly and transparently with their employees. Musk is quick to make decisions for his companies but also readily accepts blame for any failures. The employees who continue to work with him have learned to have a thick skin and ignore some of his demands.

Lead By Example

The server story above (Set More Aggressive Goals) is one of the many times Musk leads by example. Elon is known for working long hours and having a dedication to his companies. This inspires his employees and fosters a culture of accountability.

I strongly believe leaders should know how to do the jobs of the people they lead. I recall fondly my experience trying out the assembly jobs during my first few weeks leading operations for a medical device company. My employees laughed as I struggled to do their work, but also had more respect for my questions and decisions later since they knew I understood their work.

“Never ask your team to do something you aren’t willing to do.”

– Elon Musk

Hire For Attitude

When hiring, always look for people with the right attitude. As Musk states, “skills can be taught, but attitude change requires a brain transplant!”

Here is what I believe Musk looks for when hiring for attitude:

Hire For Attitude
  • Enthusiasm and interest in the company and the role,
  • A growth mindset and examples of overcoming adversity in their past,
  • Can the person clearly articulate their thoughts and ideas?
  • Do they listen actively and speak directly?
  • Are they passionate about the company’s mission and vision?
  • Will they put everything into achieving the goal (at least in some situations).


We hope you have some good takeaways from these 10 leadership lessons from Elon Musk. Let us know if you disagree with some of the lessons I took from the book, or if you have different leadership lessons from studying Elon Musk.

Please leave your comments and questions below.

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