I’m always interested in stories of vision and focused leadership and their power to overcome obstacles that seem insurmountable. I just finished reading Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance, a book that chronicles Musk’s transition from a rambunctious child adventurer to one of the world’s best-known entrepreneurs and leaders in the tech industry. Say what you will about Musk as a person (he is known as particularly difficult to work with), this is a man and now icon of Silicon Valley corporate tradition who had a vision and believed in that vision with every fiber of his being. The power of that vision–a new energy paradigm and humanity’s transition to an “interplanetary species”–carried Tesla Motors and SpaceX through financial crises and near bankruptcy to lead the world in electric cars and affordable (relatively) travel to and from space. He is worth billions today and no longer draws laughs when he talks about the logistics of establishing a Martian colony.
Right. So most of us aren’t Elon Musk. And most of the organizations we work in aren’t reinventing industries or creating new technologies from scratch. But that doesn’t negate the valuable lesson in Musk’s approach to vision. As Vance’s work outlines, Musk was a tinkerer and dreamer from an early age. He was fascinated with space and adventure and was an avid reader. So for Musk, it was natural to think big and not worry about what could go wrong or what was merely ‘possible’. I think most of us start out that way only to have those aspirations suppressed over time by the onset of adulthood and the pressure we all feel to “settle down”. We need a “real job” to support our family and live a comfortable lifestyle. Then the name of the game becomes survival. We go to work, come home. Go to work, come home. Five days a week (at least), 50-52 weeks a year. If the organization we’re part of hasn’t developed a lasting vision, then over time it becomes more difficult to find meaning in what we’re doing. And without meaning, well … then eventually we’re only there for the paycheck and all the potential the organization once had dwindles tragically. Whether you lead a team of two or two million, think of the value you could provide for your customers and the world around you … not to mention motivation for your employees, if you had a lasting vision. Elon Musk had such a vision and it remains a powerful one. So much so that people jumped at the chance to work for him despite the prospect of 18-hour days and seven-day weeks. To this day, as Vance points out, employees who left Musk’s companies–including many who were fired–remain loyal to the man they believe is leading Earth to a future beyond this century.
Now I have to be clear. I am not advocating for you to emulate every part of Musk’s leadership style. In the vein of Steve Jobs, Musk is known for berating associates who failed to deliver on a design milestone or production target. His short fuse and ensuing temper would lead to outbursts via email, social media, or in front of a crowd. Interacting with a leader, let alone a CEO who leads millions, should never be an exercise in minefield navigation. Having a forward-looking, motivating vision for your organization is never license to treat people poorly. What it is, though …
… is the power to pull people together. To clarify your collective purpose under a banner that represents your team’s potential and what everyone should strive for. But simply having a vision and writing it down isn’t enough. Once you’ve pictured the future, you must teach that future to your team. Teach them their history, where the organization came from … and your vision, where the organization is going. Most importantly, teach them how their role contributes to getting there. It doesn’t matter the role they play, or how much authority they have in the hierarchy … each person deserves the chance to share in that vision and lead their part of the organization toward a better future. That’s how you help your people find meaning in what they do, and how you start to build a strong foundation for something that’s meant to last.