The Musk Emails:  Major Themes

The Musk Emails: Major Themes

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I've been trying to understand with some concreteness Musk's approach to leadership and management within his organizations. (As Ashlee Vance's bio is still unavailable on Audible I don't have the advantage of reading the answers from there).

Some clear themes emerge in reviewing leaked internal Elon Musk emails. I've collected all of the leaked internal emails online into one page here (The Musk Emails: The Definitive Collection)

The email which summarizes all of these themes is his April 17 2018 one Progress, Precision, Profit. It uses his great sense of humour, and is worth a read in it entirety. 

Managment Themes, unique to Elon Musk


1. Don't be "dumb"

Preventing "super dumb things" or "incredibly dumb" or "particularly dumb" from happening is addressed in over 1/3 of emails. The examples often occur in the context of cumbersome or poor communication - which leads the Item 2.

"A major source of issues is poor communication between depts. The way to solve this is allow free flow of information between all levels. If, in order to get something done between depts, an individual contributor has to talk to their manager, who talks to a director, who talks to a VP, who talks to another VP, who talks to a director, who talks to a manager, who talks to someone doing the actual work, then super dumb things will happen. It must be ok for people to talk directly and just make the right thing happen."


2.  Talk to each other clearly

Most of the emails deal with communication. Elon wants employees to be clear and efficient in their communication. This means:

A. No Acronyms, May 2010 (Acronyms Seriously Suck) 

Excessive use of made up acronyms is a significant impediment to communication and keeping communication good as we grow is incredibly important.

That needs to stop immediately or I will take drastic action — I have given enough warnings over the years. Unless an acronym is approved by me, it should not enter the SpaceX glossary.

B. Talk to whomever you need to in order to get the job done most effectively. This is clearly articulated in the August 30, 2017 - Communicate Directly email where he directly asks employees to speak to each other, or any manager, or anyone in the company they have to in order to get their project completed most effectively.

Anyone at Tesla can and should email/talk to anyone else according to what they think is the fastest way to solve a problem for the benefit of the whole company. You can talk to your manager's manager without his permission, you can talk directly to a VP in another dept, you can talk to me, you can talk to anyone without anyone else's permission. Moreover, you should consider yourself obligated to do so until the right thing happens. The point here is not random chitchat, but rather ensuring that we execute ultra-fast and well. We obviously cannot compete with the big car companies in size, so we must do so with intelligence and agility.

Both of these principles are repeated April 17 2018 (Progress, Precision, Profit).  This gets to Item 3...

3.  Employees should manage themselves

Over the email series it has become apparent how Musk thinks about his employees and managers.  He clearly trusts employees to make the right decisions. He also trusts employees to know how to get their job done the best.  

Managers, in general it seems, get in the way for Elon. They try to create their own domains that become silo'ed off from the rest of the company. He wants the role of manager to break down barriers between departments. Managers that get in this way are to be bypassed. Useless meetings are to be walked out of.

In order for managers to serve the employees anything that makes them more difficult to access such as special offices, special parking, special cafeterias is done away with.  Elon leads by example sleeping on the roof, the factory floor, and wanting to understand problems first hand. He wants his managers to do the same.

It is very clear from Elon's emails that the primary role of manager is to serve the employees and the company as a whole. Not themselves, their department, nor 'the executive'.

4.  Put in place systems for personal review

When Elon wants to signal to the company there is something he care about, he institutes a procedure that will track the outcome or issue of interest and direct it to his attention for personal review. In April 2018 it was for monitoring expenses greater than a million dollars, in June 1 2017 (Lead From the Front) it was reporting every injury direct to him. Or September 28, 2017 (On Integrity) he wanted to personally review every car sold at a discounted price and why.


Common Sense Management Themes


1.  Start with the vision

Elon is famous for this, and it is how he starts almost every lecture, talk, interview, and email. Everyone is reminded why the company exists, and what its greater mission is.  This often bridges into explaining what the next step along this trajectory is.

2. Say something nice

Most emails open, or close, with a word of congratulations to the teams.

3.  Emphasize core values

Elon is very upfront about the core values he wants his organization to follow. Emails note, 

  • "There is nothing that matters more than our integrity as a company"
  • Fairness & honour are more important than profit. 
  • Quality isn't good enough, but ridiculously high quality is the goal.
  • Speed is valued over procedure.

4.  Be upfront about finances

Profitability is always a difficult issue for Tesla. Elon is upfront about asking everyone in the company to help save costs. When issues from employees arise regarding wages, compensation, and work hours he is direct in his emails addressing the concern. 

5. Write and think like a normal person

Elon's emails at their best sound like Elon Musk. Slightly informal. Frequently funny. Very upfront and honest.  

If you send email to your employees with your name on them, write them in your own style and voice. If other emails need to be sent to the company for notices, have other VPs or managers send those, rather than ghost writing them under your account. Authenticity of voice is a key component in communication.


If I was an employee reading one of Musk's emails - I'd feel a renewed commitment to the greater company vision, common sense, and focusing on getting things done. These are all the best parts of any job.

Elon wants employees to not be stifled by those parts of the workplace that are least desirable - such as pointless meetings, obstructive mangers, or dumb protocols.

Although he has ridiculously high goals & expectations for the company, he stands beside & behind his employees. Which is the best place to lead from.

This wouldn't work in my company

Many managers will argue their companies are too unique and special to adopt such an approach. That their business is too high stakes to encourage flattening of hierarchy or breaking of protocol.

As special as we may think (healthcare) is, space exploration and car production is also a high risk, low tolerance industry, with lives at stake.

Read all the Elon Musk emails

Checkout The Musk Emails: The Definitive Collection


The Musk Emails: The Definitive Collection

The Musk Emails: The Definitive Collection

The Musk Emails: Progress, Precision, Profit