Elon Musk’s recent stunt – launching a convertible Tesla roadster into space with a dummy astronaut strapped into the driving seat – is a prime example of his maverick approach to doing business.
That trick came just after Musk’s decision to sell 20,000 designer flamethrowers through his blue-sky tech firm the Boring Company paid off – they sold out and made $10m in a matter of days.
Musk’s ‘maverick’ leadership style clearly works but not everyone shares his appetite for adventure. Some of his business partners questioned the wisdom of the flamethrower launch.
US politician Miguel Santiago, one of Musk’s tunnel-project clients, told CNBC: “The state of California and the county and city of Los Angeles have entrusted Mr Musk to help alleviate a real public-policy problem here by executing a tunnel under the city to help alleviate traffic… Like most Americans I am in awe of Mr Musk’s genius, [but] I cannot even begin to imagine the problems a flamethrower would cause firefighters and police offers alike.”
Santiago’s reaction highlights what can be a big problem with adopting a maverick approach to leadership – the more innovative and startling a leader’s ideas, the more mixed the reaction they get.
‘Maverick’ leadership: hindrance or benefit?
This issue raises a wider question about leadership in general: is ‘maverick’ leadership more of a hindrance than a benefit?
If you’re trying to harness a maverick’s creative genius and innovative capacity, you’ll often find that what fascinates and drives them is the process of unleashing the new – however it takes shape.
In cases where that person has a particularly vivid imagination, it will be a challenge to make the most of that drive. The pursuit of wealth is rarely the driving force for such individuals – it’s more about bringing their ideas into fruition – sometimes regardless of their market attractiveness. This idiosyncratic approach can have a dire effect on any organisation.
Creating a balance
As CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, Musk’s leadership approach might be maverick, at times, but he balances that out by taking full ownership of his roles. He takes responsibility for his decisions and has buy-in from his team. In fact, in jobs website Glassdoor’s Employee’s Choice 2017 Highest Rated CEOs survey Musk came eighth – with a 98 per cent approval rating.
At the Institute of Leadership & Management, we cite Ownership as one of the five dimensions of leadership (alongside Authenticity, Achievement, Vision and Collaboration).
Great ownership requires leaders to take initiative – identifying and taking opportunities – as well as taking responsibility and being accountable for their decisions and the decisions of their team.
Musk’s leadership tips
In an article on CNBC, Musk summaries his winning approach to leadership in three top tips:
1. Hire people who are smarter than you
2. Do not go with the flow
3. Focus on your foundation first
In that same article, Musk also says that a leader’s job is to make it possible for their employees to do their best work.
Musk adds: “If you are a manager or leading at any level at SpaceX, we stress that your team is not there to serve you. You are there to serve your team and help them do the best possible job for the company.
“This applies to me most of all. Leaders are expected to work harder than those who report to them and always make sure that their needs are taken care of before yours, thus leading by example.”
True mavericks are as mercurial and capricious as they are passionate and creative. Musk’s maverick ideas do mean that he shoulders a larger burden of responsibility than most leaders – purely because he operates on the leading edge. But he’s also willing to accept that responsibility and be accountable for the decisions he makes.
In that sense, Musk combines ‘maverick’ leadership with ownership and a genuine desire to serve those he leads.