Thursday was a busy day for the richest person in the world. Not only did Elon Musk launch a hostile takeover attempt on Twitter, but he also sat down for an onstage interview at the TED Talk with host Chris Anderson.
Given the Twitter affair, there were obvious questions, like “why buy Twitter?”
“That’s no way to make money,” Musk replied. “My strong, intuitive feeling is that having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important for the future of civilization.”
While this part of the interview was certainly the most timely – and got the most attention – I found another question asked by Anderson much more interesting. It also happens to be a powerful lesson for every leader.
“If you could go back in time and change a decision you made along the way, your own edit button, which one would it be and why?” Anderson asked.
The question was clearly meant to be smart considering Musk said an edit button for tweets was one of the things he would bring to Twitter. Still, it’s a good question.
I’ve never met someone who doesn’t wish they could change something in their life or career. We’ve all made lots of mistakes and choices that didn’t turn out the way we hoped. In these cases, it’s hard not to wish we had an edit button.
Musk’s response, however, was remarkably candid – something we don’t usually get from CEOs. “So we messed up almost every aspect of the Model 3 production line,” Musk replied. “From the cells, to the packs, to the drive motors, the body line, the paint shop, the final assembly, everything. Everything was screwed up.”
Musk previously said the Model 3 nearly bankrupted the company – that was less than a month after it went bankrupt. It’s clear from his answer that the stress of keeping Tesla from failing affected him deeply.
“I lived in the factories in Fremont and Nevada for three years fixing that production line…running like crazy through every part of that factory. Living with the team. I walked on the floor so that the ‘team going through a difficult to see me on the ground they knew I was not in an ivory tower.’
There are some powerful lessons in his answers. The first is that having the self-awareness to realize you screwed up is one of the most important factors in success. It’s quite simple, really. If you are not successful, but cannot recognize this reality or understand why, the chances of your situation changing are not very good.
At the time, Tesla was at a tipping point. Musk has repeatedly said that the most important thing Tesla builds isn’t its electric vehicles. It is the “machine that builds the machine”.
His point is that for Tesla to be successful in making electric vehicles something the mass market will buy, it must be able to build them at scale. It turns out to be a huge challenge. Figuring out how to solve this problem was the key to the company’s success today.
Presumably what Musk is saying is that he would do more things sooner, so he could avoid what he called “three years of hell.” The thing is, sometimes you have to cross the desert before you get to the promised land.
I think it’s also worth mentioning that Musk was personally invested and personally involved in solving the problem. Most of the time, a leader who gets involved in day-to-day operations means the organization has a real problem. In this case, it was clear that Tesla had a real problem. The future of the company was at stake and that meant Musk had to be all in.
You can say sleeping on the factory floor is a bit extreme, but I think the example he was trying to set for his team was worth it. Each team is inspired by the leader. There’s no doubt that the message Musk was sending was that “this is the most important thing I can do with my time.”
I’m sure he would like to do Model 3 production and deployment differently. The lessons they provide, however, are worth remembering.