The one personality trait that helped Musk, Gates and Jobs succeed
Elon Musk is a polarizing character at his companies, but it’s nearly impossible to deny his accomplishments over the past few decades. For one, the adoption of the electric vehicle is a goal one biographer says he would not have reached if he didn’t share a specific trait with a few fellow billionaire entrepreneurs.
Biographer Walter Isaacson, who wrote an acclaimed biography for Steve Jobs and is working on one for Musk, pinpointed a specific personality trait that helped Musk, Jobs and fellow billionaire Bill Gates succeed, as detailed in a recent report from CNBC. Isaacson noted that Musk’s main goal was “getting rockets to Mars,” rather than being emotionally or empathically engaged with colleagues.
Musk’s focus on ambitions over social connection, Isaacson notes, is something that is shared with Jobs and Gates — and it may even be the key to each of their successes.
“That ability to not be as emotionally, empathetically engaged in order to see [their] vision through. It’s something Steve Jobs had, it’s something Bill Gates [has],” Isaacson said to CNBC on Tuesday. “It’s something a lot of these people have, because they’re not looking for affection from the person sitting across from them. They’re looking to get rockets to Mars.”
Musk’s leadership style has been known to ruffle some feathers at his companies. Tesla and SpaceX employees have said that Musk tends to micromanage and is extremely direct about criticism when his lofty ambitions aren’t met. Employees have also described Musk as harsh, not easy to work for, but inspiring and funny, too.
When it comes to climate change and the importance of making humanity interplanetary, Musk is not shy either.
“If the expectation is, ‘Hey, we can live and not work hard and not strain extremely to a great degree,’ this is false. That is not true. In order for us to succeed, in order for us to live, we must work very hard,” Musk said at a conference in 2018.
Not dissimilar to Jobs, who was described as blunt by employees, Musk is considered very direct with employees and colleagues, always emphasizing open communication free of the chain of command. Isaacson went on to describe Musk as “open,” just like Jobs.
“Musk is very similar [to Jobs] in being extraordinarily open,” Isaacson said. “That transparency is part of his genius.”
Still, it’s primarily Musk’s focus on ambitions, not empathy, that Isaacson points to as key to his success. Because his goals are so weighty, ethically, commercially and otherwise, Musk has to be firmly supportive of those, sometimes even at the expense of those working with and around him.
“If he’s sitting in front of four or five people who have messed up getting the booster of Starship right, he says, ‘If I’m starting to feel empathy [for them] instead of moving them out, then that’s a misplaced empathy,” said Musk. “My empathy has to be with the enterprise of getting to Mars, not with the person in front of me.’”