I hadn’t given Elon Musk’s achievements much thought until the FT named him “person of 2021” concluding that “for all the eccentric and provocative tweets that strike some as childish, he is one of the most transformational business figures of the era.”
The transformation achieved by Musk was tangible in 2021. The value of Tesla almost doubled (exceeding top 5 rivals combined) suggesting the company has realised its 2003 vision “to create the most compelling car company of the 21st century by driving the world’s transition to electric vehicles.” In the same year SpaceX has made 31 launches and was awarded by NASA the sole contract for the Human Landing System program that will see SpaceX land astronauts on the moon. The company has also set sustainability standards in aerospace engineering as the first company to reuse a rocket.
SpaceX won Nasa’s moon lander contract with a bid that was “significantly” less than a rival bid from Bezos’ Blue Origin
A key strength for Musk is his capacity for audacious, publicly shared goals alongside relative comfort with criticism, doubt or failure. He remains hopeful of landing on Mars within 10 years where he envisages a self-sustaining city. The list of goals, he summarised for the FT is impressive: “..to get people to Mars, and enable freedom of information with Starlink, accelerate sustainable technology with Tesla, free people from the drudgery of driving.” Such ambition has, in turn, attracted the most talented to solve his challenges and created a cascade effect beyond SpaceX and Tesla as other companies seek solutions to adjacent problems. Nasa’s enthusiasm to partner with SpaceX must in part reflect a shared scale of ambition – for Musk space tourism alone is not important enough. As Jim Collins observed many years before Musk started his first company a “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” is a powerful way to engage support and stimulate progress.
Investment in solving the challenge of living on Mars is accelerating 3D construction technology with much wider application.
His capacity for failure and criticism is arguably as critical as big ambition. Scepticism on the feasibility of humans surviving on Mars is considerable and SpaceX’s first successful rocket landing followed three almost bankrupting failures. As Pablo de Leon, a researcher at the Kennedy Space Center, has observed “SpaceX is not afraid of failing during testing, because that’s the way that you learn.”
Musk has some significant limitations as a role model and the next few years may prove more newsworthy for setbacks across his companies. SpaceX is currently struggling to produce a sufficient number of engines for their rocket plans and HR practices are under scrutiny following several harassment claims. Tesla will also begin the year by recalling 500,000 cars with safety issues.
Despite this, there is obvious inspiration to be taken from Musk as we start 2022. That is to ensure you are striving for your biggest, most important goals and simultaneously giving yourself more capacity for criticism, mistakes and learning on the way.