Don’t “be a leader for the sake of being a leader”

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When he’s not pontificating about missions to Mars, self-driving cars and free speech on Twitter, Elon Musk has some surprisingly practical career advice for young people.

During a December 2021 episode of the “Lex Fridman Podcast,” hosted by MIT computer scientist Lex Fridman, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX recommended young people never choose a career based on whether it could or not make them famous. Instead, he said, focus on something much simpler: find a job you’d be good at and that matches the skills you’ve picked up over time.

“[Don’t] try to be a leader for the sake of being a leader,” said Musk, 51. “A lot of times … the people you want as leaders are the people who don’t want to be leaders.”

The idea that power-hungry people don’t make effective leaders is backed up by scientific research: Last year, researchers from the Technical University of Munich found that “highly narcissistic leaders can derail teams regardless of context”. As a result, a 2015 study published in the Academy of Management Journal found that humble and empathetic leaders often improve team performance.

To become that humble, empathetic leader, Musk advised young people to focus on the work immediately ahead of them — and to believe that outperforming in that role will help them climb the career ladder. The desire to be in the spotlight won’t necessarily help, he added.

“Try to find something where there’s an overlap between your talents and what interests you,” Musk said.

Musk himself didn’t originally plan to be a tech entrepreneur: After graduating from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in 1997, he applied and was rejected for a job at Netscape, a Silicon Valley internet software company, according to the 2015 Biography “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Great Future.”

In the book, Musk told author Ashlee Vance that he probably didn’t get the job because he didn’t have a computer science degree, essentially forcing him to become an entrepreneur as the only way to get. a job in technology. He and his brother, Kimbal Musk, sold their first web-based software company Zip2 to now-defunct computer company Compaq in 1999 for around $300 million. Musk used that money to start X.com, which eventually became PayPal.

More recently, Musk seems to have strayed from his own advice: the serial entrepreneur and tech billionaire has a habit of launching companies and settling in as CEO. He currently serves as the head of SpaceX and Tesla, and also plays major roles in other companies he founded, such as The Boring Company and Neuralink.

But Musk, who has a large fan base and enjoys a good following on social media platforms like twitter, does not publicly attribute his multiple leadership positions to a passion for the spotlight. Rather, he told Fridman, his intention is to be useful, just as young people should aim to be.

“I have a lot of respect for someone who works honestly to do useful things,” Musk said. “It’s very difficult [to contribute] more than you consume. Trying to have a positive net contribution to society, I think that’s what you have to aim for.”

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