Book Review: Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future

Elon Musk is my idol. He’s my vision of the perfect entrepreneur. He’s founded four different companies that aim to make the world a better place. This book, written by Ashlee Vance, tells the story of Elon Musk’s life, times, and works. I found this book fascinating because Vance doesn’t portray Musk as the superhero that earth deserves, but as a complex man with many strengths and weaknesses whose passion is to make the world a better place.

What I loved about this book is that it didn’t solely focused on Musk but also on the people around him. Vance sheds light on the engineers who helped Musk design the prototypes for the Tesla motors and the rockets for SpaceX. He details on the motivation for the engineers who wished to pursue building electric motors or rockets. One of Musk’s biggest criteria for both SpaceX and Tesla Motors is for them to manually build all their materials. During the finding of SpaceX, Musk hated how competitors such as Boeing spent 300 million dollars on Russian-made rockets. Musk read textbooks on how to build rockets and concluded with his co-founders that it is indeed possible to build a rocket at a much cheaper cost. Vance gives the analogy of ‘why buy a Ferrari when you can buy a Honda will do?’

As a student learning managerial and organisational communication, I found that much of what I’ve learned in these classes are applied through Musk’s form of leadership. For his organisational culture, Musk wrote an email to all his employees banning the use of new acronyms. As strange of a rule this sounds, the reason behind it is so any new engineers don’t have to learn all these new acronyms and keep everyone on the same level. He’s okay with acronyms engineers should know such as GUI, but new ones like VTS don’t make sense to him.

HIs leadership style is absolutely fascinating. Vance illustrates him both being an authoritarian leader (pretty much a dictatorship) and a democratic leader. Musk will demand his employees to do impossible tasks. If the worker refuses, Musk will fire him or her immediately and then do the task himself, which Vance has noted has followed through. Musk is known to be a callous leader as shown with an incident regarding an employee missing a press release of the first SpaceX rocket launch for the birth of his first child. “That is not an excuse!” He told him (although Vance notes Musk doesn’t recall this incident). Another example of his callousness is his disregard to the loyalty of his employees. Mary Beth Brown who has worked for him for 12 years was known to be an extension of Musk. Whenever Musk was around, she was around. She scheduled meetings for him and took him out of meetings if he was in there for too long. In 2014, she asked for a raise and Musk replies with giving her an all-expenses paid vacation and he’ll think about it. Once she came back from the vacation, she was let go because Musk “didn’t need her anymore.”

Musk is also a visionary and hopeful leader. He provides his employees with a passion to solve impossible problems and gives hope when all feels lost. His goal for SpaceX is to eventually make man become an interplanetary species. He pushed his engineers to their limits to achieve his vision. He reasons why have two engineers work 8 hours when you can have one engineer work 16 hours. There was a time where most engineers wanted to take a time off and see their families. Musk replied with “You’ll get a chance to see your family 24/7 when you’re unemployed.” That clicked with the engineers and encouraged them to work even harder. SpaceX had been doing what appears impossible compared to other space companies because they are sending a rocket every three weeks compared to every year and a half and can reuse rockets that they send up into space.

I’ve found this book applicable to me because it showcases one of the most powerful man’s leadership style. It reveals how strong he is as a leader. He is a strong leader because he has strong organisational and management skills along with the ability to understand the physics behind what he’s investing in. He may be calloused in terms of emotional quality, but I find emotional quality to be one of my strongest skills which I can use in work. He is also passionate about his impossible visions. His passion for his vision brings about passion in his employees and pushes them beyond their limits to acheive such impossible dreams. If there’s one big thing I want to take away from this book is to never stop working toward your dream because someday, that dream will become a reality.

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