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Elon Musk’s optimism is his most polarizing trait. Leaders everywhere should take note.

  • Tesla CEO Elon Musk is wildly optimistic about the future of renewable energy.
  • While Musk frequently misjudges timelines, research suggests his positive attitude pays dividends.
  • Optimism during difficult times can increase engagement and decrease the risk of burnout.  
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Nobody is as excited about the future as Elon Musk — but that shouldn’t stop us from trying.

Despite the Tesla and SpaceX CEO’s reputation as a notorious micromanager and his patterns of narcissistic behavior, Musk is also a bottomless pit of optimism. He doesn’t just want to electrify the world or live among the stars. He’s certain these futures will materialize.

Take Tesla’s first-quarter earnings call on Monday, in which Musk made a number of bold pronouncements. “More likely than not, Model Y will be the best-selling car or truck of any kind in the world in 2022,” he said. He also predicted, “Long-term, people will think of Tesla as much as an AI robotics company as we are a car company or an energy company.”

These proclamations could unsettle Tesla’s more down-to-earth investors. But research suggests Musk’s wide-eyed view of the future is still a trait worth modeling in calculated doses, as both employees and customers benefit from optimistic leaders — even if that rosiness might seem overly ambitious from the start.

Promising results from a study on hospitals 

Current and former Tesla employees have attested that Musk’s optimism and sense of purpose are core parts of what make working for the company so meaningful. On the one hand, employees say Musk can be overbearing. But on the other, they say he helps people reach their potential and offers elegant solutions to complicated problems.

“Tesla is an engineer’s paradise where the pencil is literally never down,” one former Tesla engineer told Insider reporter Mark Matousek in 2019.

Shawn Achor, a positive-psychology researcher, entrepreneur, and the author of “The Happiness Advantage,” said Musk’s brand of optimism will serve his stakeholders — meaning his employees, customers, and investors — if he remains a “rational” optimist and pairs his rosy outlook with compassion. (By “rational,” Achor means a leader who recognizes a problem and believes it can be fixed with the right people and effort, rather than sugar-coating problems.)

“If compassion for the world guides his actions,” Achor said of Musk, “the positive impacts of his optimism will be amplified.”

In 2017, Achor and his colleague (and spouse) Michelle Gielan conducted an experiment with Genesis Health System, headquartered in Davenport, Iowa. The five-hospital system was struggling financially and faced issues of burnout and low retention. Jordan Voigt, president of the Genesis Medical Center-Davenport, wanted to make a change. He just didn’t know how to boost morale when hope felt so scarce.

Achor and Gielan set about introducing a positive-psychology approach — that is, they tasked each department with coming up with creative ways to introduce more gratitude, praise, recognition, and community into the daily function of each department. Some staffers stuck Post-it notes of affirmation to their colleagues’ desks. Others launched events to build a sense of togetherness.

Results showed not just a boost in morale, but retention went up and incidence of burnout went down. As the coauthors note, in the parts of the hospital excluded from the experiment only 37% of respondents said Genesis was going in the right direction. That number jumped to 63% in the groups that took the positive approach. By the fall of 2019, the hospital system had achieved record revenue for the year, at $114 million.

“It’s precisely in the midst of a setback or challenging time, that leaders should be actively encouraging positivity,” Achor and Gielan wrote last year for HBR, “because it will help teams weather the storm.”

Musk’s brand of optimism is a rather literal interpretation of that idea, given the world’s ongoing climate crisis. His positivity about the future isn’t just a statement on things turning out for the best. It’s that humanity will survive at all.

Taking a Musk-ian approach to optimism

Certain elements of Musk’s optimism have undoubtedly gotten in the way. The CEO has repeatedly had to admit to setting unrealistic timelines for delivering Tesla’s cars. During the company’s annual shareholder meeting in 2018, for example, Musk said, “I think I do have an issue with time. This is something I’m trying to get better at.” He blamed his sense of optimism as the source of overpromising.

In some cases, Musk has even been criticized for misleading consumers. Such was the case with Tesla’s “Full Self-Driving” capabilities in July 2020, when a German court ruled against the automaker and banned certain language in its advertisements.

Optimism is also a well-known blindfold, preventing leaders from seeing the risks that lower-level employees easily observe. This blindness can turn to a lack of empathy or respect, as Achor notes, both of which research has repeatedly found to be vital to successful leadership.  

Not all hope is lost for Musk and leaders like him. One remedy for pathological optimism is a technique known as scenario planning, in which the leader imagines their desired outcome as just one of several that could unfold. They can then assign probabilities to each and create contingencies so that no one outcome is catastrophic.

In Musk’s case, those outcomes are often rockets exploding or cars catching fire. For most of us, the stakes aren’t so visible; disengagement is subtle.

But as we inch our way out of the pandemic and into a new world of working, there’s a lot leaders should be optimistic about: openness to new ways of working, opportunities to socialize, and so on. If we’re going by the science, we shouldn’t keep quiet about these outcomes. We should shout them from the rooftops.

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