The Leading Blog


Elon Musk by Walter Isaascson

Issacson Elon Musk

LOVE HIM or hate him, Elon Musk is not easily dismissed. While there is genius in his high-tech visions, some of his opinions and antics leave some people disturbed if for no other reason than they don’t align with their own.

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Elon Musk is full of revealing, behind-the-scenes anecdotes that provide insight into why Musk does what he does and why he does it that way. Even though Musk’s approach doesn’t necessarily provide a blueprint to be copied any more than Steve Jobs’ approach did (even though both individuals got results), it does offer lessons to be learned and applied in our own leadership.

Musk remarked on Saturday Night Live in May of 2021, “To anyone I’ve offended, I just want to say, I reinvented electric cars and I’m sending people to Mars in a rocket ship. Did you think I was also going to be a chill normal dude?”

Below, you will find some excerpts that give you a taste of what you will find in Isaacson’s Elon Musk.

Growing up:
“With a childhood like his in South Africa, I think you have to shut yourself down emotionally in some ways,” says his first wife, Justine, the mother of five of his surviving ten children. “If your father is always calling you a moron and idiot, maybe the only response is to turn off anything inside that would’ve opened up an emotional dimension that he didn’t have tools to deal with.” This emotional shutoff valve could make him callous, but it also made him a risk-seeking innovator. “He learned to shut down fear,” she says. “If you turn off fear, then maybe you have to turn off other things, like joy, or empathy.”

“Adversity shaped me,” Musk says. “My pain threshold becomes very high.”

Some of the words Elon uses, the way he stares, his sudden transitions from light to dark to light, remind his family members of the Errol [father] simmering inside of him. “I would see shades of these horrible stories Elon told me surface in his own behavior,” says Justine, Elon’s first wife. “It made me realize how difficult it is not to be shaped by what we grew up with, even when that’s not what we want.”

Confinity [PayPal] cofounder Max Levchin recalls, “Elon will say crazy stuff, but every once in a while, he’ll surprise you by knowing way more than you do about your own specialty. I think a huge part of the way he motivates people are these displays of sharpness, which people just don’t expect him, because they mistake him for a bullshitter or goofball.”

“Entrepreneurs are actually not risk takers,” says CFO Roelof Botha. “They’re risk mitigators. They never seek to amplify it, instead, they try to figure out the controllable wiles minimize their risk.” But not Musk. “He was into amplifying and burning the boats so we could never retreat from it.” “It would be a theme in his life: chips off the table; keep risking them.”

He was a visionary who didn’t play well with others.

Reid Hoffman, another PayPal veteran observed, “What I didn’t appreciate is that Elon starts with a mission and later finds a way to backfill in order to make it work financially. That’s what makes him a force of nature.”

Max Levchin says, “One of Elon’s greatest skills is the ability to pass off his vision as a mandate from heaven.”

First principles and the Idiot Index:
As he stewed about the absurd price the Russians wanted to charge, he employed some first-principles thinking, drilling down to the basic physics of the situation and building up from there. This led him to develop what he called an “idiot index,” which calculated how much costly a finished product was than the cost of its basic materials. If a product had a high idiot index, its cost could be reduced significantly by devising more efficient manufacturing techniques.

If you’re unwilling to invest in a company, he felt, you shouldn’t qualify as a founder. “You cannot ask for two years of salary in escrow and consider yourself a cofounder,” he says. “There’s got to be some combination of inspiration, perspiration, and risk to be a cofounder.”

As his team grew, Musk infused it with his tolerance for risk and reality-bending willfulness. “If you were negative or thought something couldn’t be done, you were not invited to the next meeting, SpaceX Tom Mueller recalls. “He just wanted people who would make things happen.” It was a good way to drive people to do what they thought was impossible. But it was also a good way to become surrounded by people afraid to give you bad news or question a decision.

A maniacal sense of urgency is our operating principle,” he repeatedly declared. The sense of urgency was good for its own sake. It made his engineers engage in first-principles thinking.

Musk’s focus was on root causes. What in the design was to blame for a production-line problem?

Musk liked to focus on work. At times, he treated the rest of his life as an unpleasant distraction.

“If conventional thinking makes your mission impossible,” Musk told him, “then unconventional thinking is necessary.”

The Algorithm
“I became a broken record on the algorithm,” Musk says. “But I think it’s helpful to say it to an annoying degree.” It had five commandments: Question every requirement. 2. Delete any part or process you can. You may have to add them back later. 3. Simplify and optimize. 4. Accelerate cycle time. 5. Automate. That comes last.

If you don’t end up having to restore 10 percent of the parts you deleted, then you didn’t delete enough.

It's OK to be wrong. Just don’t be confident and wrong.

Hiring, look for people with the right attitude. Skills can taught. Attitude changes require a brain transplant.

“One of Elon’s rules is, go as close to the source as possible for information.”

“Precision is not expensive,” he says. “It’s mostly about caring Do you care to make it precise? Then you can make it precise.”

The biggest change Musk wrought was to put the design engineers in charge of production, like he had done for a while at Tesla. I created separate design and production groups a long time ago, and that was a bullshit mistake,” he said at one of the first meetings that McKenzie led. “You are responsible for the production process. You can’t hand it off to someone else. If the design is expensive to produce, you change the design.”

Although stubborn, Musk can be brought around by evidence.

When things were most dire, he got energized. It was the siege mentality of his South African childhood. But when he was in survival-or-die mode, he felt unsettled. What should have been the good times were unnerving for him. It prompted him to launch surges, stir up dramas, throw himself into battles he could have bypassed, and bite off new endeavors.

Discomfort, he believed, was a good thing. It was a weapon against the scourge of complacency. Vacations, flower-smelling, work-life balance, and days of “mental rest” were not his thing. Let that sink in.

The value of serendipity and of showing up in person: “Me and James and the people on our Autopilot team are always sitting together, and ideas flow real fast, and what we do as a team is better than what any one of us could do,” he said. Andrew noted that was why Musk favored in-person rather than remote work.

Isaacson concludes with this observation of Musk:

One can admire a person’s good traits and decry the bad ones. But it’s also important to understand how the strands are woven together, sometimes tightly. It can be hard to remove the dark ones without unraveling the whole cloth. As Shakespeare teaches us, all heroes have flaws, some tragic, some conquered, and those we cast as villains can be complex. Even the best people, he wrote, are “molded out of faults.”

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Empathy: The Top Leadership Skill for Today’s Work Environment


AS workplace cultures evolve, we must specifically prioritize the needs of each human being. An empathetic approach to organizational culture has been proven to have positive business outcomes.

Recently, a large study ranked empathy as the most important leadership skill in the workplace. Empathy has been shown to drive positive business results and has numerous therapeutic effects on stressed employees. When leaders expressed empathy for their team, it increased a team’s innovation and engagement, improved customer service, and helped them balance their home and work life.

British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson said, “Understanding empathy, as well as the experiences of people from different areas of life, is a key skill for business leaders.”

With similar conviction, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, said, “Empathy makes you a better innovator. ...It’s a quality my wife helped me begin to learn when our son was born with severe disabilities. It’s a quality that shapes our quest to meet unmet needs of customers. And…it helps us as a society move forward in creating new opportunities for all.”

To further document empathy’s advantages at work, the Global Empathy Index, published in the Harvard Business Review, examined data from employee’s responses to questions ranging from a CEO’s approval ranking to their own happiness level in their job. Researchers found that empathic companies are the most profitable and are associated with increased employee earnings and gratification as well as customer satisfaction.

The appeal of empathic leadership extends beyond conventional office environments. Former Navy SEAL commander Mark Divine trains athletes, SWAT teams, first responders, and aspiring SEALS to combine mental toughness with intuition and heart. Empathic leadership is not only for supersensitive types. It is also for tough people in any field.

You can become an empathic leader whether you’re a new manager, a C-suite executive, or you’re simply leading by example in any job even if you don’t manage anyone. Because the need for empathy and human connection has increased in our chaotic world, the power of everyday empathic leadership has grown.

To become a more empathetic leader, hone these key traits:

  1. Integrity. Value and model integrity, always taking the high road and consistently doing what you say you will.
  2. Connection. Take a genuine interest in team members. Relate to others in a way that enables you to understand their point of view, know how they feel, and discover what inspires them.
  3. Nurturing. Nurture team member’s talents and strengths while using appreciation and positive reinforcement to encourage excellence.

When an empathic leader, for example, sees a team member faltering, they don’t crank up the pressure to perform or use criticism to motivate. Nor do they lead with impatience, which only makes people freeze or panic. Instead, they begin with appreciation for the person’s contributions to the team. Then, in a caring tone, they address any difficulties they are encountering and explore strategies together to reach their goal.

Approaching a team member with empathy rather than provocation doesn’t make leaders pushovers, weak, or unable to set boundaries. Rather, they incorporate strength and compassion to lead.

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Leading Forum
Judith Orloff, MD, is the author of the new book The Genius of Empathy: Practical Skills to Heal Your Sensitive Self, Your Relationships, and the World with Foreword by the Dalai Lama (Sounds True, April 9, 2024). Dr. Orloff is a member of the UCLA Psychiatric Clinical Faculty and a New York Times bestselling author. She’s a leading voice in the fields of medicine, psychiatry, empathy, and intuitive development. Her work has been featured on CNN, NPR, Talks at Google, TEDx, and the American Psychiatric Association. She has also appeared in USA Today; O, The Oprah Magazine; Scientific American; and The New England Journal of Medicine. She specializes in treating highly sensitive people in her private practice. Learn more at

Sign up here for Dr. Orloff’s online webinar about empathetic healing techniques based on The Genius of Empathy on April 20, 2024, 11am-1pm PST.

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Leading Thoughts for February 22, 2024

Leading Thoughts

IDEAS shared have the power to expand perspectives, change thinking, and move lives. Here are two ideas for the curious mind to engage with:


Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter on the source of burnout:

“We believe burnout is the result of a mismatch between employee and workplace. Burnout is best conceptualized as a relationship problem—an issue with the fit, or match, between the person and the job. When there is a good match, the worker is likely to be engaged with the job and happy, energetic, confident, and ready to commit to a productive long-term relationship. But when there is a mismatch, the employee is more likely unhappy, exhausted, and cynical. A person in this situation may be unwilling to do more than the bare minimum, and ready to quit the relationship and leave for another job. In short, a worker experiencing a major mismatch is likely to experience burnout.”

Source: The Burnout Challenge: Managing People’s Relationships with Their Jobs


Professor Moshik Temkin asks if you would fight back against a fascist power?

“We should not ascribe everything that happened in Vichy France to ideology or anti-Semitism. Probably a much more important reason for why certain French citizens acted the way they did was one of the strongest human desires—the desire for normality, which often just equates to conformity. The ideal scenario in 1940, at least for those who were able to, was to abide by the new status quo in an effort to keep life as normal as possible.

Life under tyranny can be banal, even pleasant, for most people. If you yourself are not the target of such a regime, you might not feel any difference at all between a fascist government and a liberal one. Indeed, your personal situation might be quite good. That was the case under the Vichy regime for many Frenchmen, who saw no reason to resist.”

Source: Warriors, Rebels, and Saints: The Art of Leadership from Machiavelli to Malcolm X

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Steve Jobs: The Dynamics of An Excellent Team

Steve Jobs Excellent Team

IN this interview, Jobs explains the dynamics of a team that pushes to excel—to be above average—excellent. There are some team leaders who would argue that a great team is all smiles and agreement. But that only produces stasis or marginal improvement at best. It’s groupthink.

A productive team that pulls the best thinking from all members encourages the friction we need to grow into something transformative. What follows is a lightly edited portion of Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview, released in 2012, explaining what is required from a team to achieve excellence.

One of the things that really hurt Apple was after I left, John Sculley got a very serious disease, and that disease I’ve seen other people get it, too. It’s the disease of thinking that a really great idea is 90% of the work and that if you just tell all these other people, “Here is this great idea,” then, of course, they can go off and make it happen.

And the problem with that is that there is just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product. And as you evolve that great idea, it changes and grows. It never comes out like it starts because you learn a lot more as you get into the subtleties of it, and you also find there are tremendous tradeoffs that you have to make. There are just certain things you can’t make electrons do. There are certain things you can’t make plastic do, or glass do, or factories do, or robots do. And as you get into all these things, designing a product is keeping 5,000 things in your brain, these concepts, fitting them all together, and continuing to push to fit them together in new and different ways to get what you want. And every day, you discover something new—a new problem or a new opportunity to fit these things together a little differently. And it’s that process that is the magic. And so, we had a lot of great ideas when we started.

But what I’ve always felt is that a team of people doing something they really believe in is like … When I was a young kid, there was a widowed man that lived up the street. And he was in his 80s. He was a little scary-looking. And I got to know him a little bit. I think he might have paid me to mow his lawn or something. And one day, he said, “Come on into my garage. I want to show you something.”

And he pulled out this dusty, old rock tumbler. It was a motor and a coffee can and a little band between them. And he said, “Come on with me.” We went out to the back, and we just got some rocks. Some regular, old, ugly rocks. And we put them in the can with a little bit of liquid and a little bit of grit powder. And we closed the can up, and he turned this motor on, and he said, “Come back tomorrow.”

And this can was making a racket as the stones went around. And I came back the next day, and we opened the can, and we took out these amazingly beautiful polished rocks. The same common stones that had gone in, through rubbing against each other like this, creating a little bit of friction, creating a little bit of noise, had come out these beautiful polished rocks. And that’s always been, in my mind, my metaphor for a team working really hard on something they’re passionate about. It’s through the team, through that group of incredibly talented people, bumping up against each other, having arguments, having fights sometimes, making some noise, and working together, they polish each other, and they polish the ideas, and what comes out are these really beautiful stones.

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quickpoint: What Middle Managers Do

Middle Managers

IN Power to the Middle: Why Managers Hold the Keys to the Future of Work, authors Bill Schaninger, Bryan Hancock, and Emily Field contend that middle managers are crucial to the new world of work.

What middle managers do is actually much more complex than what either executives or frontline workers do: They manage both up and down, and serve as translators in both directions. What kind of qualities and skills does the job require? Emotional intelligence, resilience, adaptability, technical skills, critical thinking, communication skills, being open to change, seeing the big picture, and managing both full-time and contract/gig workers. Everything they do deeply affects the work, the workforce, and the workplace.

For those who remained in the workforce, the pandemic made the above abundantly clear. At first, some senior leaders thought they could make all the big decisions on how things should run, but they were wrong. They came to realize that they needed middle managers more than ever. The people in the middle were the only ones who could connect the big goals at the top with the details at the bottom, and do so quickly.

Middle managers are the vital link between senior leaders and those on the frontline. They are in an ideal place to see how an organization’s purpose, strategy, and culture are trickling down into the organization and whether they’re actually working. They can inform all three in return. Managers are also the most important guides needed to help teams and organizations navigate the seismic challenges in today’s world of work, including automation, hybrid work, and skill shortages. They are also best positioned to forge the day-to-day human connections that so many workers crave, and critical to improving DE&I, retaining and developing talent, and more.


Senior leaders should make transforming the role of middle managers their top priority. They should invest in their success, placing their most qualified and valued people in these roles, providing training for them to excel, rewarding them within the role rather than promoting them into more senior positions, and most importantly giving them the time to actually manage. By trusting managers to make decisions, and sending a clear message that these roles are highly desirable, middle managers will be better positioned to make an impact.

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Leading Thoughts for February 15, 2024

Leading Thoughts

IDEAS shared have the power to expand perspectives, change thinking, and move lives. Here are two ideas for the curious mind to engage with:


Talia Fox on listening:

“Many of us remain confident in our ability to listen, insisting that we’ve been doing so all our lives. We believe we should focus our leadership efforts on other, less common skills, gravitating to things that seem newer and more innovative.

Listening is the single most important way to improve our relationships, build community, and achieve our goals. Conscious and connected listening is more complex than it may seem—often, when we think we’re listening, we’re actually just waiting for the chance to share the voices in our heads. The difference is crucial—and it changes everything.”

Source: The Power of Conscious Connection: 4 Habits to Transform How You Live and Lead


Chris Deaver and Ian Clawson on leading with questions:

“If you want to focus on improving relationships, lead with a question. Instead of “How are you doing?” try asking, “What’s something exciting You‘re working on?” or “What do you recommend we do?” Watch people smile and light up when they feel connected. Next time you see someone is struggling, ask, “What’s on your mind?” This could make the difference in their day. It could free up their emotional constraints, even if just for a moment.”

Source: Brave Together: Lead by Design, Spark Creativity, and Shape the Future with the Power of Co-Creation

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5 Leadership Lessons: The Pursuit of Excellence

Ryan Hawk Excellence

RYAN HAWK has interviewed hundreds of leaders on his podcast The Learning Leader Show. He has collected their wisdom in The Pursuit of Excellence: The Uncommon Behaviors of the World’s Most Productive Achievers. It is filled with practical thoughts and behaviors that will make you think and potentially set you on a path to sustained growth. Here are just five ideas he shares from those on his podcast:

1  Success is based on a comparison with others. Excellence is measured against your own potential.

2  The worst advice given to young people is follow your passion. Your job is to find something you’re good at. And then spend thousands of hours and apply the grit and the sacrifice and the willingness to break through hard things to become great at it. Because once you’re great at something, the economic accouterments of being great at something, the prestige, the relevance, the camaraderie, the self-worth of being great … will make you passionate about whatever it is. Here’s the problem with believing you should follow your passion: Work is hard. And when you run into obstacles and you face injustice, which is a common guaranteed attribute of the workplace, you’ll start thinking, “I’m not loving this. This is upsetting and hard. It must not be my passion.” That is not the right litmus test.

3  New goals don’t deliver new results. New lifestyles do. And a lifestyle is not an outcome. It is a process.

4  The best leaders know how messy they are. They challenge themselves. They have a high level of self-awareness. They know they need people around them to help. They acknowledge their imperfections, and they give others grace for their imperfections.

5  Progress happens too slowly to notice; setbacks happen too fast to ignore. There are lots of overnight tragedies but no overnight miracles. Growth is driven by compounding, which always takes time. Destruction is driven by single points of failure, which can happen in seconds, and loss of confidence, which can happen in an instant.

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Evolve or Dissolve: Shaping Your Corporate Culture for a Remote Reality

Remote Culture Caligiuri

IN THE PAST DECADE, the corporate world has seen a seismic shift in how it operates. The advent of technology that enables remote work combined with the ever-increasing rate of employee turnover in many industries has led to a transformation in the very fabric of organizational culture. Businesses striving to adapt and thrive amidst these changes must find innovative solutions to the matter of maintaining a robust corporate culture.

The Erosion of Traditional Corporate Culture

A strong corporate culture will influence how team members interact and conduct business. Teams operating within a strong culture share a set of values, beliefs, and behaviors. These are learned over time and socialized when newcomers “learn the ropes” from interactions with and observation of colleagues and leaders. But today’s decentralized office environment makes it harder to socialize culture, foster a sense of unity, and reinforce shared values. Additionally, greater turnover rates disrupt continuity and the transmission of cultural values, leading to a disjointed and often weakened corporate identity.

Importantly, if corporate culture is left unattended, over time it will weaken and dissolve.

Remote Work: A Double-Edged Sword

While remote work offers flexibility and can increase productivity, it limits opportunities for spontaneous collaboration and social interaction — both crucial for building a cohesive culture. Without the organic conversations that occur in physical office spaces, employees can feel isolated and new hires may struggle to assimilate into the company’s ethos.

In attempting to bridge this gap, Google, for example, has invested in virtual reality technology to create more immersive and interactive remote meetings. Using a very different approach, companies like Yahoo and IBM, once pioneers in remote work, reconsidered their remote work policies and brought team members back into the office to preserve their corporate culture.

The Impact of High Turnover

Frequent employee turnover further complicates the picture. Each departure is a loss of cultural knowledge, and each new hire is a potential cultural reset. This constant flux can make it more challenging to maintain a stable and consistent corporate culture.

If companies experience increases in short tenure among senior associates, they will have fewer leaders able to transmit the corporate culture. Some industries, such as professional services, hospitality, and retail, are experiencing higher turnover rates, impacting the maintenance of strong corporate cultures.

5 Strategies to Strengthen a Weakening Corporate Culture

In response to these challenges, companies must be proactive in nurturing and evolving their corporate cultures. Here are five strategies to consider:

  1. Emphasize regular communication and visibility: In a remote or hybrid work environment, have clear and frequent communication. This is crucial. Leaders should also strive to be visible and accessible, using various communication technologies to maintain an open dialogue with their teams. Hold regularly scheduled video conferences, company-wide updates, and virtual town halls to help bridge the physical gap.
  2. Foster connection and collaboration: Create opportunities for employees to interact and collaborate beyond work-related tasks. This could include virtual coffee breaks, online team-building exercises, and interest-based groups. Encouraging informal interactions helps build relationships and a sense of belonging. Some all-remote companies regularly organize remote social events and meetups to strengthen bonds between associates and create a connected corporate culture. It should be noted that these virtual social events work best when employees are given plenty of notice, are able to help organize, and are able to provide feedback regarding opportunities to connect — which isn’t always the case in every company.
  3. Reinforce and adapt company values: As the workforce changes, so should the approach to instilling company values. It’s important to regularly revisit and communicate these values, ensuring that they’re aligned with the current mode of operation. It might be, for example, that the values for work-life integration are patterned after outmoded ways of working — that work happens at the office and life happens at home. Adapting and reinforcing values could involve a collaborative approach to updating company handbooks, creating interactive learning modules, or holding workshops.
  4. Use myGiide to socialize employees: The innovative myGiide platform can play a pivotal role in socializing employees. It offers personalized learning journeys, making it easier for new hires to understand the company’s culture, values, and expectations. It can help company leaders better understand the pressure points that will impede the integration of the corporate culture. To execute winning corporate culture initiatives, myGiide can help integrate individuals into the corporate culture, even in a remote setting.
  5. Recognize and reward cultural contributions: Acknowledge and reward employees who embody and promote the company’s values. Celebrating those who contribute positively to the culture reinforces its importance and encourages others to follow suit. Salesforce is known for its Ohana culture. Ohana is Hawaiian for “family” — both the family you’re born into and the family you adopt. Salesforce demonstrates Ohana by fostering a corporate culture that emphasizes inclusivity, collaboration, and support among employees, customers, and stakeholders, treating them as an extended family.

The evolving landscape of work presents unique challenges to maintaining a strong corporate culture. However, with thoughtful strategies and tools like myGiide, companies can adapt and even thrive in this new era. By focusing on communication, connection, adaptation, socialization, and recognition, organizations can forge a resilient and dynamic culture that withstands the tests of distance and turnover.

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Leading Forum
Paula Caligiuri is a D’Amore-McKim School of Business Distinguished Professor of International Business at Northeastern University and founder and CEO of Skiilify, a digital platform for improving cross-cultural communication. She has a new book, Build Your Cultural Agility: The Nine Competencies of Successful Global Professionals and offers a free web tool to assess cultural agility at

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