Elon Musk, Tesla and Space X CEO, is not the obvious spokesperson for inequality. Musk commands sizable wealth (some $14 billion) and is among the most elite of tech CEO’s. He takes a minimum wage salary, which many see as pandering (his real wealth comes from his Tesla shares which are taxed at a lower rate than income).
But his personal finances aside, Musk is tackling societal issues as great as inequality, with a daring that makes him stand out from most. He combines long-term vision with a genuine mission to serve others. It is a potent combination.
In 2002, he founded his company Space X, which manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft, with the sole purpose of colonizing Mars. He thinks the best way of ensuring the survival of the human race is by making us multi-planetary.
In 2003, he founded Tesla Motors. “Cars without compromise” are what Teslas are all about. They are clean energy personified. Sustained by electric power, they have zero emissions and instant torque. Tesla has done a huge service to clean energy advocates and the environment.
Both companies came dangerously close to bankruptcy in 2008. But Musk raised cash to keep them alive. He put every cent he had into them.
Some people thought he was crazy. But he just had an uncommonly forward-looking mentality backed by his beliefs. He was willing to sacrifice for something larger than himself.
This is made abundantly clear in his Mars’ colonization ambitions. These ambitions will not be realized in his lifetime. He will not see the output of his labor. But he knows what it will mean for humanity in the long run.
“I think we have a duty to maintain the light of consciousness, to make sure it continues into the future,” he said.
What CEO today thinks beyond the immediate goal of making as much profit as possible as quickly as possible?
Space X is privately-held (so that helps) and Tesla has received government subsidies. But Musk has often taken huge personal financial risks to see that his ideas come to fruition. For him, the money is secondary. He is in it because he believes in it. Clean energy and space exploration are a matter of survival for our species.
What drives CEO’s like Musk and how can we get more of them?
Musk has five sons. I suspect this might have something to do with it. He can put aside immediate gratification and think long-term about making life better for them. He also endured a distinctly tough childhood in South Africa. Resilience was something he needed to learn early. Perhaps his expectation from the start was that life had to be better somewhere else.
Being smart doesn’t hurt either. Musk has a sharp intelligence. Watch him give a Tesla demo and he delights himself with the product he is offering. He loves what he does. It is not a mere hobby. It is his lifeblood. And it is contagious. 325,000 pre-orders for the Tesla Model 3, “the biggest one-week launch of any product EVER.”
Musk did not stumble into greatness. He thought deeply about challenges facing man and instead of saying,“Who cares?” went and did something about it. He applied his talents in the service of others and made magic.
By caring, he has been able to amass a personal fortune few could imagine. He also gets to go to bed at night knowing he is doing something to make his children and grandchildren’s lives better.
How many of us get to do that?
Short-term thinking leads to compromised outcomes. This is not something Musk is willing to risk. When asked about his succession plans, he offered the following:
“I just don’t want it to be controlled by some private equity firm that would milk it for near-term revenue. That would be terrible.”
So it is likely he will give the companies to one of his sons to ensure his vision is kept alive.
For me, Musk is a striking contrast to the CEO archetype of today. Every move they make is governed by short-term thinking. It is almost as if they don’t see any inherent value in the companies they are leading. It is troubling. It is a race to the bottom.
But with Musk, it is a race to someplace better. I wish we had more CEO’s like him. Maybe there would be more products worth buying. Maybe there would be more inspired people. Maybe there would be some answers to the challenges we face as a species. At the very least, we might feel like we were tasked with finding a solution together.