Elon Musk’s subterranean high-speed transit tunnel project in Hawthorne, a suburb of Los Angeles, is a stark reminder to all of us that visionary leadership remains the key driver of success in today’s hyper-competitive global markets.
Musk took invited guests on a brief tour of the tunnel last week and even let some of them take a test ride in a Tesla Model X that traversed the tunnel’s 1.14-mile length. Riders reported a bumpy trip, and Musk explained that his team was still working on smoothing out the tunnel’s surface.
The media hasn’t quite known what to make of Musk’s latest venture. He says he built the tunnel as part of a larger strategy to reduce traffic problems in California, but doubters say the tunnel represents an effort to divert attention away from Musk’s much-publicized problems at Tesla.
From my perspective, arguing over why Musk built the tunnel misses the point. The fact is that he saw a challenge -- improving California’s horrendous traffic -- and set to work developing a potential solution. This is how great minds work: They see problems and they invent solutions. They don’t wait for permission or approval -- they move ahead at their own pace and they keep going until they achieve success.
Why are we surprised by this kind of straightforward approach? At times, Musk rambles. Sometimes he rants and rages. But his essential philosophy hasn’t changed over the years. He isn’t afraid to think big, and he isn’t afraid to fail occasionally as he strives to reach his goals. He creates and recreates his own legend, moving the ball forward with each new idea.
As a global society, we need more people like Elon Musk. We need risk takers and bold visionaries. We need people with spirit and courage. We need leaders who can see around corners and clearly visualize the opportunities that lie over the horizon.
It’s no accident that Musk reminds us of Thomas Edison, another great inventor who refused to let the common wisdom set his agenda. In the decades that have passed since Edison’s heyday, we’ve only begun to appreciate how much his genius transformed our world. We depend today on so many of Edison’s inventions (such as light bulbs, sound recording devices, motion picture cameras, mass electrification and thousands more) that we simply cannot begin to imagine our lives without them.
I predict that Musk will eventually join the pantheon of great inventors epitomized by Edison. In the not-too-distant future, schoolchildren will learn about Musk and study his inventions, much is the same way we studied and admired Edison.
As leaders of business and industry, there are plenty of lessons we can learn today from Musk. The first and foremost lesson is to build a great team and surround yourself with the best people. The next important lesson is not to listen to the naysayers. A big part of leadership is blocking out negativity. Successful leaders are generally positive, generous and uplifting. They understand the fundamental human need to be appreciated, and they appreciate the efforts of their colleagues and coworkers.
The final lesson is never quitting. Great leaders push ahead, even when the prospects for success seem dim. The visitors to Musk’s underground tunnel might have experienced bumpy rides, but in the long run, they received an amazing gift: They can tell future generations what it was like to make history.