Leading Like Jeff Bezos Or Elon Musk: Lessons From Their Contrasting Styles

Whatever your views of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, it’s hard to argue with their success at creating and leading innovative organizations with daring missions. Jeff Bezos leads Amazon and Blue Origin, the space company that wants to take you to the moon. Elon Musk leads Tesla and SpaceX, the space company that wants to take you to Mars to join a colony.  Collectively the companies they lead have generated over $1 trillion in market value over the past 10 years.  So it’s not surprising that Bezos and Musk are tied for the No. 1 spot in our 2019 Forbes ranking of America’s Most Innovative Leaders.

But when we interviewed them (and those that work with them), we found some interesting paradoxes when comparing their leadership styles. Of course, there are important similarities. For example, they have both successfully turned visions into reality by building and leveraging their Innovation Capital—their capacity to win resources and support to pursue radical new ideas (See Innovation Capital: How to Compete – and Win – Like the World’s Most Innovative Leaders, Harvard Business Review Press, June 2019). If nearly anyone other than Elon Musk had proposed drilling tunnels underneath Los Angeles, they would have been laughed out of the building. But when Musk proposed the “Hyperloop” he was greeted with enthusiasm, fanfare…and even investment. By just mentioning the idea for “Hyperloop” (an idea that has actually been around since the early 1900s), Musk was able to generate an explosion of media attention to the idea (see Figure 1.1).

A chart showing mentions of hyperlook technology going back to 1994. Mentions spike in 2012, corresponding to when Musk first mentioned experimenting with hyperloop technology.

But beyond their innovation capital, these two leaders have led the way to these outsize outcomes in markedly different ways. Here’s how—and why—they both succeed with differing leadership styles. 

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