Why are highly successful leaders bound to fail?
What are we to make of Elon Musk as a business leader and are his latest and somewhat erratic actions a sign that the wheels are coming off the Tesla project? The first thing to be said is that Musk is clearly a special individual. He’s a bright, intelligent, some would say gifted, individual but does that make him a leader? Well perhaps. But perhaps what he had as a leader has left him. Are we really now witnessing the hubris associated with many who achieve great things in early life? Undoubtedly his global payments platform which ended up as the world leading PayPal and turned him into billionaire at the age of 31 was an amazing achievement. Unfortunately those who achieve such heights forget that the person they have become by the time they cash out may no longer have the same attributes they had when they started out in life. Most obviously they have more money and that means they look at things differently. Certainly Musk did. He saw internal combustion engine powered cars as an evil from which the world had to be delivered and so he launched the electric car dream that is Tesla. It’s enjoyed some success but now there are doubts about the follow through and ultimately its sustainability. Why?
The increased complexity of leadership challenges as a company grows
The demands of business leadership changes as organisations get bigger. The visionary entrepreneur is great at getting an idea off the ground, but there are a very few who can carry it all the way. Musk may be guilty of not quitting while he was ahead. He’s allegedly doing 120 hour weeks working, and sleeping, on the factory floor in a bid to iron out Tesla’s burgeoning problems. Workers like to see their leaders getting their hands dirty, it’s true. It shows commitment and a willingness to eschew the ivory tower of management. But this can only sustain for so long. Care manufacturing is big and complex. Those who work in it need leadership but they also need management. The bigger the organisation the more the leader has to be responsible for setting the tone rather than making all the music. Musk is guilty of acting like an orchestra conductor who keeps rushing round the rehearsal room playing every instrument just to prove how able he is but sadly evoking feelings of inadequacy amongst his players. This may be behind the high profile defections to other tech companies such as Apple.
Review your big hairy ambitious goals
A leader can and, from time to time, should set stretching targets – BHAGS (Big Hairy Ambitious Goals) in modern management speak – but if those targets are persistently unrealistic they undermine morale. Even more so if advice from those at the coal face is ignored. There there are the dreaded meetings. Apparently, Musk will walk out if he finds them uninteresting. This shows a lack of self-awareness. As the boss he’s probably the only one who actually can walk out of a meeting; no one else would dare. But what does it say to the speaker, already white-knuckled at the thought of having to present with the boss in the room? Again it’s a morale sapper. Walking out is a form of censure and it’s very public. Good leaders know that the norm should be, ‘Praise in public, bollock in private.’
Even leaders should play by the rules
Leaders are responsible for the way an organisation is viewed by the outside world. Employees want to work for a company that’s held in high esteem. So when Must tweets something crass, that esteem is reduced and employees feel uncomfortable. More important, no matter how much money you have personally, if you are the leader of a publicly quoted company there are rules you have to follows. So falling foul of the SEC and the subsequent criticism heaped on Musk in the financial pages over his wish to take the company private again, does little to boost him or the business in the eyes of his workforce.
Even the most successful leaders need time to unwind and recover
Is it salvageable? Possibly. I don’t know who Musk talks to when he’s under pressure but I hope there is someone he turns to. Perhaps the best advice would be to stop. Stop tweeting, stop the 120 hours weeks, stop walking out of meetings. Take a break. Go somewhere remote, probably involving a Caribbean island and/or a luxury yacht. Unwind and start to think. Meanwhile, trust your people. The business ought to survive a couple of weeks without you. Must has an incredible brain but he’s only human. He needs to give his brain time to recover and catch up. And by the sounds of it he needs to give his employees a break to.