A friend of mine recently left Tesla, the renowned electric car maker, saying both, "It was incredible, " and "I’d never work there again."
His sentiment echoed that of several former employees of another of today’s most celebrated companies, SpaceX, when I interviewed them for my 2014 book on innovation. Direct quotes include, "We were in the presence of brilliance" and, "It scared me."
These two companies share much in common. Aside from the billion-dollar valuations and ambitious technology they produce, they share a chief executive: the infamous Elon Musk, a polymathic self-made billionaire who also founded Zip2 and PayPal and currently chairs the energy company SolarCity. If anyone in our generation has the chance of being remembered 200 years from now for his or her work, it’s probably Musk. Ironically, the thing that makes his companies and inventions so impactful is also the thing that makes him frustrating to work with.
One former employee told me that for example an engineer might spend nine months working 100 hours a week on something because Musk has pushed him to, and then out of nowhere Musk will change his mind and scrap the project.
A good leader needs to be extremely persuasive to get people to follow her, and to push people hard to stretch what’s possible. That persuasion comes with expressing strong opinions. Think of the best leaders in history—Mandela, Churchill, King, etc.—and you’ll see a pattern: they tell great stories, with boldness, absolutely convinced that they are right. They both inspire and grab attention.
Says Dolly Singh, former HR head at SpaceX: "The thing that makes Elon Elon is his ability to make people believe in his vision." Jim Cantrell, SpaceX’s first engineer, adds, "The guy is pure ambition. He's three or four steps ahead … Most of us can’t conceive these things working; he can’t conceive it failing. Period." This is the hallmark of an opinionated leader.Some people love us, and some people hate us. But very few people ignore us.
Jason Fried, the founder of Basecamp, put the power of opinionated leadership well: "Some people love us, and some people hate us. But very few people ignore us."
The problem with opinionated leaders is that even the smartest people get things wrong, and many leaders fear changing course once they’ve expressed an opinion for fear of appearing weak.
Elon Musk: Biography of a Self-Made Visionary, Entrepreneur and Billionaire (Investing, Entrepreneurship, Success, Innovators, Great Men, Success Principles, Business Advice)
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