For multiple years running, startup founders rank Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk as their most admired tech leader. In fact, with 23% of the vote, he’s blows Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, with a distant 10%, right out of the water. These two admired leaders also have their fair share of critics, landing them in other executive rankings as overrated CEOs. Regardless, the truth about bold leadership is not being afraid to rock the boat with your opinions, actions and vision.
Musk is a wildly controversial guy who’s a huge risk-taker, looking to colonize Mars, send tourists around the moon, build a transportation fleet powered by solar energy, and dig a vast underground network to fight gridlock. He’s as audacious, ambitious and bold as they come, and his grandiose ideas regularly make headline news.
While most C-level execs are neither in the billionaire club nor looking to build Mars-bound rockets, they can learn something from Musk’s bravado. Namely, how to build a bold personal brand that elevates their reputation as an industry thought leader.
1. Go out on a limb
While thought leaders should be industry visionaries, there’s a tendency to “play it safe”. Everyone is saying artificial intelligence is the next big thing. If you are a player in this space, you need to do more than spout forecast numbers. What will AI do to the automotive, retail and restaurant industries? How will the technology’s advancement impact safety and jobs? According to Musk, the advance of AI will be to the detriment of the U.S. workforce: “What to do about mass unemployment? This is going to be a massive social challenge. There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better [than a human].”
This kind of statement is not sensationalism. It’s opinion grounded in reality and industry knowledge. Don’t be afraid to make bold predictions. Remember, you are an expert in your space, and your opinion makes you interesting and a great resource for viewpoints that go well beyond the “bits and bytes” stories.
2. Take a seat at the table
If you want to be heard, you need to take a seat at the table. It’s not always your ideal company, but – like voting –.if you don’t cast your ballot, you don’t have a voice. Lots of CEOs would prefer to keep their heads down, work on making a great product or service, avoid distractions, and stay off the radar. Earlier this year, Uber’s CEO made this choice when he stepped down from Donald Trump’s Advisory Council following backlash from consumers who took his participation as tacit endorsement of the president’s immigrant ban. Musk, on the other hand, opted to have a seat at the table to engage and discuss business policy. In that seat, he hopes to influence the new secretary of state on the carbon tax, denounce the ban on immigration, and push forward more of his own agenda. “Attending does not mean I agree with actions by the administration,” said Musk. “I believe at this time that engaging on critical issues will on balance serve the greater good.”
3. Offer solutions
Bold thought leaders don’t just forecast the future, they offer possible solutions to real-world problems. What infrastructure improvements need to be made for fully self-driving cars to become a reality? How can we curb the downside of automation? How can we fight traffic? Musk is so sure that automation will displace millions of workers, he’s suggested a universal basic income, wherein everyone gets a certain amount of money annually. What about traffic congestion? He proposes a vast underground network containing as many as 30 levels of tunnels for cars and high-speed trains. Are these ideas far-fetched? You bet. But he’s willing to put himself out there to propose his viewpoint and ideas to solve real problems.
4. Don’t be afraid to be a nay-sayer
In the process of building their personal brand, many executives don’t want to criticize existing ideas, for fear of coming off as negative. There’s nothing wrong with having an intelligent discussion that disagrees with other ways of solving a problem. Musk’s proposal to dig thousands of miles of tunnels sounds preposterous to most, but he points out that other ideas, like Silicon Valley’s go-to traffic solution of flying cars, are equally outlandish. “Obviously I like flying things,” he says, “but it’s difficult to imagine the flying car becoming a scalable solution.”
5. Share your vision
Oftentimes companies are very “stealthy” about their product plans and roadmap, afraid to give anything away to the competition. That’s valid, but what a CEO can do is skip the near-term and intermediate details, and go straight to the company’s master plan. A CEO should be willing to spell out his vision for the company, and what success looks like. Musk has famously told his employees he plans to “die on Mars” after he helps a million people move there on his rockets at $500,000 per ticket. Leaders make bold predictions, and that’s something that Musk excels at.
In our next blog post, we’ll apply these tips and show you five key ways you can use content marketing to build your personal brand.