Leadership

Elon Musk and Steve Jobs' brilliant trick to inspire employees to achieve the impossible

Elon Musk
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Elon Musk

Like most leaders, Elon Musk has big ambitions for his team — really big. The billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla wants to colonize Mars and transform the world's energy system.

With such seemingly impossible goals, how does one inspire people to work tirelessly to make it happen?

According to the popular 2015 biography "Elon Musk" by Ashlee Vance, Musk uses a brilliant management trick to get the most out of his people.

After interviewing three dozen SpaceX engineers, Vance discovered that Musk doesn't just set deadlines; he gets people to take ownership over their projects.

"He doesn't say, 'You have to do this by Friday at 2 p.m.,'" early SpaceX engineer Kevin Brogan tells Vance. "He says, 'I need the impossible done by Friday at 2 p.m. Can you do it?'

"Then, when you say yes, you are not working hard because he told you. You're working hard for yourself."

For smart, ambitious people this kind of challenge can be highly motivating, even if it's stressful.

Steve Jobs
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Steve Jobs

Another great tech leader, the late Apple cofounder Steve Jobs, used a similar strategy. Jobs was notorious for his "reality distortion field," a rules-bending logic that defied practicality.

Jobs frequently set improbable deadlines that sent employees scrambling. Interestingly, according to Walter Isaacson's 2011 book "Steve Jobs," it often worked.

"In his presence, reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything," Bud Tribble, a software designer on Apple's Macintosh team in the early 1980s, says in the book. But it was this mindset that led Jobs "to actually be able to change reality."

While Isaacson notes that many leaders may distort reality, and Jobs had plenty of failings as a manager, his field was often "a tactic for accomplishing something."

Early employees like cofounder Steve Wozniak and controller Debi Coleman found the technique to be effective and empowering, according to the book.

Walter Isaacson
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Walter Isaacson

Isaacson writes: "It enabled Jobs to inspire his team to change the course of computer history with a fraction of the resources of Xerox or IBM. 'It was a self-fulfilling distortion,' [Coleman] claimed. 'You did the impossible, because you didn't realize it was impossible.'"

After all, isn't that the job of any great leader — to plot a course, create a sense of urgency, and inspire people to achieve what they never thought possible?

When you think back on the best boss you ever had, was it the one who was exceedingly nice and provided an easygoing environment, or was it the one who pushed you to learn and grow and achieve more than you ever expected of yourself?

I'd venture to bet the latter.

See also: Billionaire Elon Musk credits his success to these 8 books