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By Andrew Fayad, CEO of ELM Learning, a creative agency focused on designing custom multimedia and digital learning experiences.

However you feel about Elon Musk, some things are irrefutable: He’s extremely successful, is endlessly innovative and acts as a case study for creative leadership. As he has made, sold and ran a bevy of successful companies, it’s clear that he utilizes a very specific type of leadership to keep the train of innovation chugging. Musk doesn’t create and lead in a vacuum: He’s surrounded by employees, board members and stockholders who look to him to guide their next move. For better or worse, here are five things we’ve learned about leadership from Elon Musk.

Stay open to new ideas.

As a child, Musk had a passion for science fiction books and movies. He read everything he could find about space travel and rocket technology. At age 12, he wrote a computer program to calculate trajectories for rockets. By age 14, he was designing rockets with paper and pencil.

Later, he said, “…advice I would give is to not blindly follow trends. Question and challenge the status quo. Make sure you understand the fundamental principles of what you’re trying to do before you get into the details, otherwise you could be building on faulty ground.”

Musk has a preternatural ability to see past the current trends and statuses to see what could be. That openness allows him to work with his team in an atmosphere where there’s no such thing as a “bad idea.” Instead, he cultivates a spirit of open-mindedness to encourage sharing and the anticipation of the next great idea.

Don’t be afraid of failure.

In 2018, Musk tweeted, “Creating a rocket company has to be one of the dumbest and hardest ways to ‘make money.’” The tweet came nearly a decade after both SpaceX and Tesla were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and Musk had lost his position as CEO of two other tech companies. Had he been afraid of failure, two of the most recognizable companies in the United States may no longer exist.

When Musk is brave with his decisions, his team is empowered with the same courage. Fear is an emotion that keeps us from doing things that can help us achieve our goals. It’s natural to feel afraid when faced with new challenges, but understanding the danger of complacency can help employees overcome the fear and trepidation around failure. Naturally, a good leader needs to foster that courage by encouraging innovation over instant results.


Find a mentor.

Mentors are invaluable when it comes to developing a leadership style. Someone who has reached goals you’re still working on can give you real-life, actionable tips to becoming a better leader.

Can’t think of someone who would be a great mentor? Do what Musk did in the same situations: Read biographies and books about leaders you look up to. Musk chose de facto mentors from a practically endless library of great leaders, like Benjamin Franklin, Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, and of course, Nikolas Tesla.

Learn to say no.

In 2017, Musk resigned from his post with the White House Advisory Council over the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. While the post was prestigious and offered the benefits of extreme power at the highest level, recognizing that the job no longer aligned with Musk’s mission for sustainability and care for the environment meant that it was diametrically opposed to his objectives. Sometimes, as a leader, you need to step back and say no when things no longer serve your personal and organizational goals.

“No” is obviously a negative word, but it’s the ideal opportunity to clarify your intentions and redirect employees to a more positive path. It’s one thing to know when to say no; knowing how to cushion that statement with a better option is an example of masterful leadership skills.

Keep learning and stay curious.

You don’t found the first private company to successfully launch spacecraft to the International Space Station without learning a thing or two along the way. Lifelong learning is a key component of Musk’s leadership style. Realizing that learning never stops, staying curious and seeking different venues to satiate that thirst for information means that no one in Musk’s circle is resting on existing knowledge. Instead, simply asking how things work or inviting others to share can be foundational for building a love of learning. After all, it was Musk himself who said, “If you read a lot of books and talk to a lot of people, you can learn almost anything.” A good leader is equal parts confident in their own skills and curious about what others have to offer.

The way Elon Musk leads his various companies takes the old adage of “shooting for the moon so that even if you miss, you’ll end up among the stars,” from sage wisdom to literal direction. When you lead like Musk, you’re always pushing for something greater: We believe everyone could stand to be a little fearless and a little more curious when leading their teams to greatness.


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