Mission Impossible – Elon Musk’s Secret to Great Achievement

Happy New Year to Each of You — here’s to a prosperous 2019!

The interest in my recent posts about the travails of Elon Musk leads me to believe that you, like me, find this iconic entrepreneur both fascinating and vexing. Whether it is the success of Space X or the struggles of Tesla, we sense there is a lesson to be learned from Mr. Musks dramatically divergent results with those ventures.

But which lesson?

In my first post about Musk, I highlighted his wise strategy of hiring Gwynne Shotwell to run day-to-day affairs, reiterating my long-standing belief that every Visionary leader needs an execution-oriented co-pilot in order that their company achieves its highest potential. In my follow-up post, I described the failings of Tesla as a case-in-point to that argument. Yet in my third post, I suggest Musk may be similar to other Vision Master innovators (think Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg), who hold (or used to hold) themselves above criticism as an entitlement based on their unique abilities.

So, what are we to learn from Mr. Musk’s experiences, as well as the well-known, sometimes Mercurial careers of other iconic Vision – Masters?

Are they jerks or geniuses?

Perhaps they’re both. If so, maybe the lesson to learn is how they use their so-called negative traits — screaming, temper tantrums, brow-beating, pushy, highly demanding — in ways that, if properly understood, are actually positive traits in disguise.

Vince Lombardi is often called the greatest football coach in history. He ruled by terror, threatening every player who didn’t perform up to his high standards with the promise (which he actually kept several times!) to “trade them off to Buffalo.” Yet his players, those who survived and thrived, loved him like a father figure. They also won five NFL Championships in seven seasons. Today, the NFL Super Bowl Trophy is named after Lombardi.

George Patton was one of America’s most-revered military commanders. Called “Old Blood & Guts” by his troops, Patton succeeded time and again using an aggressive strategy that took the will and physical endurance of his men beyond their self-imposed limits repeatedly. He was scolded, reprimanded, then demoted for brash treatment of men and caustic statements in the press. By the time of the Normandy Invasion, in 1944, Patton was relegated to command of a decoy army. But he later obtained a field command, ran roughshod over the German army through France and into Germany, then became a hero of the Battle of the Bulge, somehow marching his troops more than 100 miles through snow and forests to relieve the beleaguered U.S. forces at Bastogne. Today, Patton is considered one of the most effective military commanders in history.

So, if brash, sometimes offensive, always hard-driving tactics are revered in sports and warfare, why not in business?

Perhaps ill-tempered, intolerant-of-mistakes, driving-to-exhaustion leadership has a purpose. Clearly, some Vision-Master leaders lionize and attempt to emulate the tactics of the Elon Musks and Steve Jobs’ of the world, in the same way that military leaders emulate Patton and football coaches emulate Lombardi. In fact, some commentators have noted that temper and intolerance on the part of the Vision Master is an effective strategy for weeding out executives who are not up to their high standards.  If the executive can’t tolerate the heat, he or she gets out of the kitchen, which leaves only the most talented behind.

Yet consider that the much-noted histrionics of a Musk or Jobs may simply be window dressing for a deeper truth, superficial antics covering a meaningful strategy. If that is the case, Vision Masters who understand the deeper strategy could obtain the kinds of results of a Jobs, a Musk, a Bill Gates, without all of the ranting and raving.

Let’s call this deeper strategy the “Mission Impossible” approach.

Here’s what it consists of:

First, motivated by a passion for impact, the Vision Master conceives of an innovative product, something which seems impossible to achieve but which is necessary to move the world forward. Next, he or she verifies that the conceived product vision is possible based on first principles, i.e. not based on what other people think is possible. The Vision Master then works at communicating this innovative product vision so that others can see that it is in fact possible. (See Steve Jobs’ famous “reality distortion field.” It was said that Jobs could convince anyone of anything, so long he himself was convinced.)

Now it’s time to build a team around that vision, so the Vision Master hires (or partners with) the smartest people he or she can find. Once on-board, the Vision Master begins to demand that his or her team achieves a certain impossible goal by a certain date. (See Patton’s march to Bastogne) He or she does this in part by infecting the team with the belief that it is in fact possible. Once this is accepted, he or she then holds each person accountable, but allows them ownership over exactly how to accomplish their personal “mission impossible.”  Along the way, to keep the pressure on, to keep their drive at its peak at all times, the Vision Master employs a variety of motivational methods (such as internal competition, appeal to ego, fear of angry outbursts, fear of public humiliation) to reinforce the demands to complete the project. (Like Lombardi’s threats of a trade to Buffalo)

What do you think? Does this provide you with a new insight as to why Musk, jobs, Gates and others operate the way they do?

In fact, there is evidence that this “Mission Impossible” management strategy works for Vision Masters. Soul of a new Machine by Tracy Kidder first revealed an early version of this strategy. Gwynne Shotwell, in recent writings, has confirmed that this is how Elon Musk operates, and that she is challenged by it but happy to comply as it does fulfill her own desire for long term impact.  In fact, her vision’s bigger than his, I’m told.  Musk’s biographer Ashlee Vance articulated this strategy most clearly. In a review of the book on the CNBC website, Jenna Goudreau summarizes the strategic value of the “Mission Impossible” strategy, “after all, isn’t that the job of any great leader — to plot a course, create a sense of urgency, and inspire people to achieve what they never thought possible?”  Maybe it is the job, but most business leaders shrink from it.

The truth is that anyone can be a jerk. But being a jerk, by itself, has nothing to do with effective leadership. Being a jerk within the context of a cogent “mission impossible” strategy to get a team to accomplish the perceived impossible is different. That can win wars, championships and get companies to the top and beyond.

Interestingly, Musk himself may not even be clearly aware that he is using the “Mission Impossible” strategy. I say this because in the many published interviews Musk has given about his leadership secrets, I’ve yet to see him articulate it. For example, in this, this and this interview, Musk exhibits an understanding of some elements of the “Mission Impossible” strategy, such as creating an audacious, world changing idea, hiring smart, self-motivated people, and working 100 hour weeks. But he never talks about holding his people accountable to the seemingly impossible.

Perhaps he’s just not aware of it. Perhaps, he is simply an asshole in terms of dealing with human frailty– albeit a very smart, supremely driven, highly successful one. The point is he could achieve all the success without most of the baggage if he chose to.

You can do the same. You, as Vision Master of an innovative company, can employ the entire “Mission Impossible” strategy, using a modicum of the ranting and raving as needed, without “being” an asshole — without believing you’re entitled to treat people like sh*t. Clearly, successful Vision Masters from many walks of life has used this strategy (knowingly or not) to achieve greatness, win wars and change the world by motivating the people around them to accomplish the impossible.

Key Takeaways:

  • Most commentators miss a key success strategy that Elon Musk himself does not mention in interviews.
  • It is the “Mission Impossible” strategy and it was also used by other visionary entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, as well as Vince Lombardi and General George Patton.
  • This strategy entails requiring team members to achieve a seemingly impossible goal by a certain date.
  • This is surprisingly difficult to do in practice.
  • But when repeated thousands of times and at all levels of the organization, the seemingly impossible can and does occur.
  • People will amaze you at what they produce with the right mix of pressure and an audacious, unreasonable, outrageous seemingly impossible common goal that they have a real stake in achieving.

That’s why the smart money isn’t betting against Tesla or SpaceX.

P.S. A personal note to Musk:

I hope you do find a way to deal with people while using the “mission impossible” management strategy, without the collateral damage.  This behavior is not sustainable.  Assuming you stay out of BK court and jail on earth, there is no way this kind of behavior is workable in the limited confines of a Martian colony.  The resentment generated will result in murder and civil war in no time, and no doubt a colony collapse results.  Yet “mission impossible” management is essential, even more essential, in a space colony where unknowns are as dark and mysterious as space itself.  So my “mission impossible” assignment to you and all other Vision Masters (myself included) is to call your teammates to the impossible, without inspiring hatred and rage.  Our future on Mars depends on it.