SpaceX Lessons: How to inspire the impossible

A common issue that many leaders face is getting their followers to achieve something difficult, some might say “impossible”. How do the greatest leaders inspire their followers into achieving things that are hard, difficult or outright impossible?

One such leader is Elon Musk. Now I have a bit of a fascination infatuation with Musk. Perhaps this is because my entire life, people have told me that certain things are impossible, to which my reply has always been “Challenge accepted!”. It definitely seems that Musk has done something similar. He is the CEO of 3 Major Companies, 2 of which are incredibly successful. He launched more rockets between June and December 2020 than Nasa did the the preceding 6 years. This is just one of many accomplishments that makes Elon a fascinating case study for achieving really difficult feats.

I have no doubt that we’ll look back on this era similar to how we look at the space race era of the 50’s and 60’s. Right now, is the first time since the space race that truly innovative technological advancements have been made in such a short period of time.

An Impossible task

On May 25 1961 John F. Kennedy made a speech before congress declaring an impossible goal: To put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. In retrospect it’s difficult to understand why this was an impossible task. This was a direct response to the massive advancements that the Soviet Union had made in their space travel. When companies like SpaceX and RocketLab are currently launching rockets almost every week, this doesn’t seem like a big deal. Below is a timeline of rocket travel up to this point:

A Brief history of rocket travel up to 1960:

1930 – 1940

  • 1930’s – 1940′ Nazi Germany start experimenting with the idea of using rockets as long distance weapons.
  • Later in World War II London would be attacked by V2 rockets from Germany. Travelling a total distance of about 200miles while arching about 60miles above the channel.
  • After World War II the United States and Soviet Union would create their own missile programs.

1950 – 1960

  • On October 4, 1957 the Soviet Union would launch the first dummy satellite into space: Sputnik 1.
  • In Jan 31, 1958, the first American Satellite went into orbit – Explorer 1

1960 – 1970

  • On April 12, 1961, Russian Yuri Gagarin reached an altitude of 327 Kilometers to become the first person into lower earth orbit (space).
  • In 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American to fly into space.
  • On May 25, 1961 Kennedy declares that America will be the first nation to go to the moon.
  • On July 20, 1969 Neil Armstrong would become the first Human Being on the moon.
  • Between 1969 and 1972 there would be Six Apollo Missions.

It is remarkable to see how quickly the United States and the Soviet Union went from launching dummy satellites to getting a human being onto the moon. This entire process took 12 years! When we consider the technology of the day and that “Rocket Science” was an emerging and new field of study. This really is one of the most remarkable feats of human genius in the last millennia.

Space X

But what does any of this have to do with SpaceX and Elon Musk?

For Elon and SpaceX the ultimate goal is establishing a colony on mars. Elon Musk has given himself incredibly strict timelines to achieve this. In order to achieve this goal workers at SpaceX average about 12 hours a day or about 60 – 80hours of work a week. Elon Musk has also been known to work almost impossible weeks of up to 120 hours a week! This is about 15 – 17 hours a day, 7 days a week. There is a famous story of a factory worker finding Elon Musk sleeping on the floor of one of the Tesla factories.

Aren’t the employees being over worked?

Now when I first heard that SpaceX employees are working an average of 60 – 80 hours a week, my initial thought was “They must be so unhappy”.

What SpaceX Employees are saying

“If you believe in creating life in another planet and that’s enough to motivate you to work long hours for below average wages then this is the place for you.”

“Pros: Challenging and productive with a sense of belonging. Cons: Long Hours”

“10 – 12 hour days is normal but pay & benefits at SpaceX are amazing”

Based on this, we can deduce that SpaceX attracts two types of employees. There are those that are willing to work ridiculous hours with harsh deadlines due to the pay and benefits. I am doubtful that these types of employees will last long at SpaceX or similar companies. Burnout will ensue these employees. Then there are those that will do anything regardless of the rewards to achieve Elon’s goal: To build a colony on mars.

The problem with the traditional business model

There are 2 commons types of “missions” that business set for themselves:

  1. The “Lets hit our targets and make investors happy” types of businesses
  2. The “We need to beat our competition” types of businesses

Lets take a look at each type briefly.

“Lets make our investors happy”

There is a good chance that you have worked for a company like this. Every Monday your manager will walk in and call a meeting to see how everyone is doing with their targets. In some cases the manager will go as far as ridiculing those that don’t make their targets.

“Lets beat our competition”

In other instances, companies will revolve their entire strategy around their competitors. This strategy can be incredibly reactive. This strategy is dependent on reacting to what the nearest competitor is up to.

This mindset is also prevalent in Politics, either you’re going to beat the competition (The opposing politcal party) or you want to keep the investors happy (The voters).

What does this all mean?

Often a company’s mission will revolve around beating the competition, being a “market leader” or reaching financial goals to impress investors. This is a short sighted and counter intuitive approach.

People will always rally around a common vision. This could be a common enemy or a common goal such as meeting sales targets. But it’s the really big scary visions that alter the course of society that are most compelling. When companies have visions like this, employees start to move from being productive to cult-like fanaticism.

People are looking for meaning in life, if you can add meaning to your followers lives, you can inspire the masses to achieve something “impossible”. A real vision that paints a picture of a reality that is not currently attainable is what really gets people going. This could be something as elegant as putting a colony on mars or building a truly efficient electric car.

Leaders like Elon Musk and President John Kennedy are able to inspire their subordinates into doing extra ordinary things by creating an emotionally stimulating goal. They’ve cleverly beaten the competition by ignoring them. And because they ignore the competition and focus on a higher calling, people are more willing to rally around a cause larger than themselves.

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