Elon Musk Is Bold and Daring. But Should You Be Like Him?

Two business experts sound off on why Musk is (and isn't!) an entrepreneur to emulate.
Elon Musk Is Bold and Daring. But Should You Be Like Him?
Image credit: Art Streiber
Magazine Contributor
5 min read

This story appears in the November 2018 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Tesla is a well-publicized mess -- behind on production, abandoned by its executives and embroiled in an SEC investigation. Musk, too, often appears to be a mess -- increasingly erratic on Twitter, lurching from one PR crisis to the next. But in 2018, his company SpaceX launched and landed a giant rocket (and then booked the first passenger for a trip around the moon), his hyperloop technology scored a contract with the city of Chicago and his battery-making Gigafactory hit new strides. So is he a model to follow? Our experts square off.

Related: I Ran My Day Like Elon Musk Runs His -- and This Is What Happened

He’s an inspiration!

By Leonard Sherman, professor of business, Columbia University

Entrepreneurs are dreamers: To succeed despite the many obstacles ahead, they need to not only have a unique vision, but to also be relentlessly devoted to it. This is what makes Musk such a model worth following. Yes, he may at times be self-destructive, egomaniacal and quixotic, but he’s also in the pantheon of greatest innovators of all time. May we all be so bold.

Steve Jobs, another flawed genius, might as well have been writing about Musk when he scripted the voiceover to Apple’s iconic Think Different TV spot that aired in 1997. It kicked off: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers.” And its bold conclusion: “Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

No entrepreneur in our lifetime has exhibited as much soaring ambition, guts, tenacity and passion to change the world as Musk. And let’s not forget, his predecessors were equally challenging. Thomas Edison was expelled by his first-grade teacher after only three months for habitually confused, disruptive behavior. Nikola Tesla was diagnosed with OCD, mania and hallucinogenic schizophrenia. Henry Ford, Leonardo Da Vinci and Albert Einstein were all posthumously diagnosed with ADD/ADHD. I don’t mean to romanticize mental illness; instead, I’m pointing out how people have succeeded despite it.

Beyond Musk’s undoubtable genius and grit, it takes a heavy dose of hubris to devote one’s life to pioneer technologies that promote the Earth’s sustainability, while simultaneously creating an intergalactic escape hatch if we collectively fail to save the planet. In keeping with the breathtaking ambition of his quest, Musk has certainly suffered many personal and technical setbacks along the way. But despite it all, entrepreneurs should remember Steve Jobs’ words. Bold, daring entrepreneurship is messy. It’s complex. But the crazy ones will get shit done.

Related: 5 Ways Dreamers Can Become Doers

He’s a cautionary tale!

By Peter Cohan, lecturer of strategy, Babson College

The lessons that entrepreneurs should take from Elon Musk are clear: Put the highest priority on what is best for your company’s customers, employees, partners and investors. To do that, you must look at your strengths and weaknesses objectively. If you are not good at a skill that’s critical to deliver what stakeholders expect -- now and in the future -- you should partner with an executive who is.

For all of Musk’s ambition and achievements, he seems unable or unwilling to do this. Elon Musk is a product visionary who should not be CEO of a public company. Given his control of the board of Tesla, it looks like he will not be leaving the job -- but if the board were independent, it would be replacing him.

To his credit, Musk has been able to design, build and deliver some fine-looking electric vehicles and what appear to be very effective reusable rockets. But Tesla needs an adult -- someone like former Boeing executive and Ford CEO Alan Mulally -- to take over as CEO. And Musk needs to accept what he’s good at  -- and he’s very, very good at product and vision. His companies, his employees and everyone who stands to benefit from his inventions would be better off if Musk could accept his own limitations.

Related: The 5-Hour Rule Used by Bill Gates, Jack Ma and Elon Musk

If you are great at sales and managing people, you should partner with an executive who is great at product innovation and vice versa. If you are good at building a product and winning the first customers for a company, but you don’t have the patience for or interest in building an organization that can repeatedly deliver excellence as the company scales, you should replace yourself with a CEO who can. This is what bold entrepreneurship looks like: It’s not about shouldering every burden alone but is, instead, about maximizing the value of everything -- including yourself.

To read more from our list of 2018's Most Daring Entrepreneurs, click here


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