Voices

The Two Counterintuitive Personality Traits That Make the World’s Best Leaders

A friend of mine recently left Tesla, the renowned electric car maker, saying, “It was incredible,” but “I’d never work there again.”

His sentiment echoed that of several former employees of another of today’s most celebrated companies, SpaceX, when I interviewed them for my 2014 book on innovation. Direct quotes include “We were in the presence of brilliance” and “It scared me.”

These two companies share much in common. Aside from the billion-dollar valuations and ambitious technology they produce, they share a chief executive: the infamous Elon Musk, a polymathic self-made billionaire who also founded Zip2 and PayPal and currently chairs the energy company SolarCity. If anyone in our generation has the chance of being remembered 200 years from now for his or her work, it’s probably Musk. Ironically, the thing that makes his companies and inventions so impactful is also the thing that makes him frustrating to work with.

One former employee told me that for example an engineer might spend nine months working 100 hours a week on something because Musk has pushed him to, and then out of nowhere, Musk will change his mind and scrap the project.

The blessing and curse of an opinionated leader

A good leader needs to be extremely persuasive to get people to follow her, and she needs to push people hard to stretch what’s possible. That persuasion comes with expressing strong opinions. Think of the best leaders in history—Mandela, Gandhi, Churchill, King, etc.—and you’ll see a pattern: They tell great, bold stories, absolutely convinced that they are right. They both inspire and grab attention.

Says Dolly Singh, former HR head at SpaceX: “The thing that makes Elon Elon is his ability to make people believe in his vision.” Jim Cantrell, SpaceX’s first engineer, adds, “The guy is pure ambition. He’s three or four steps ahead. … Most of us can’t conceive these things working; he can’t conceive them failing. Period.”

This is the hallmark of an opinionated leader.

Jason Fried, the founder of Basecamp, put the power of opinionated leadership well: “Some people love us, and some people hate us. But very few people ignore us.”

The problem with opinionated leaders is that even the smartest people get things wrong, and many leaders fear changing course once they’ve expressed an opinion for fear of appearing weak.

And yet, the hallmark of innovative thinking is the ability to be open and adaptable. Continuing on a path just because you’ve committed to it is not a formula for success (or happiness, for that matter). And as I documented in Smartcuts, the fastest-climbing people and companies are willing to deviate from their original business or career plan. Whereas a strong leader needs to be resolute and persuasive, an innovative leader needs to be open to changing her mind.

The best leaders in the world are both:

The Counter-Intuitive Personality Traits That Make the World's Best LeadersEmployees at SpaceX said people would follow their CEO into the sun. And yet the high-speed turns required to get there often lead to burnout.

Opinionated but humble

Apple’s Steve Jobs lived in the bottom right quadrant. He was fiercely opinionated in his vision, highly charismatic in his delivery, and often abrasive with those who didn’t agree. But when he changed his mind about something, he became fiercely opinionated in the opposite direction.

Most of us are not Steve Jobs. We should be humble enough to admit that we’re not right about everything. But most leaders who invoke Jobs when passing down orders forget that he was humble enough to change his mind and double down. Being strong-willed alone didn’t make Apple successful. After years of middling performance in the ’90s, the company only began to truly succeed when it combined a strong point of view with the willingness to change.

It’s for this reason I’m convinced that one of the best things we can do for children is sign them up for debate class. Debate trains you to be opinionated and persuasive about a topic, and then to turn right around and be just as opinionated on the other side of that topic. It trains you to let go of ego and jump into deep water with both feet.

There’s stigma associated with leaders who change their minds. Yet we forget that Hillary Clinton was a staunch conservative before she was a zealous Democrat (and Ronald Reagan in the other direction). We forget that Nokia used to be a paper mill and Twitter was a podcast company before it about-faced and went all-in on social networking. If my own company hadn’t shifted its business model and jumped into a new pool with both feet, we wouldn’t have 1/10th of the impact we have today.

You need an open mind to invent, and a strong will to execute. You don’t have to be insufferable to make that happen (it is possible to be opinionated, adaptable, and pleasant), but breakthrough organizations require both elements.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss flip-floppers. They’re the ones, it turns out, who change the world.

Image by Imaake
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