Never one to merely tinker with his Tesla projects and immerse himself exclusively in that brand, Elon Musk stunned the business world on 27 January by announcing the sale of 20,000 designer flamethrowers through his blue-sky tech firm the Boring Company.
Crafted to resemble sleek, science-fiction rifles and sold for $500 apiece, the flamethrowers were launched as a means of drumming up finance for Musk’s more elaborate R&D ventures, which the Boring Company oversees – such as the entrepreneur’s plan to revolutionise transport by building a network of high-speed, superconducting tunnels under the surface of every American state.
On 1 February, Musk announced that all of the flamethrowers had sold out, with the surprise product making $10 million in a matter of days. To drive sales, Musk had issued a string of larky social media updates, including one of himself using the device, and a tweet suggesting that the flamethrower would be handy to have around in a zombie apocalypse. All of which signals maverick leadership of an uncommonly cavalier stripe.
Days later, Musk rammed his maverick credentials home with his next trick: launching a convertible Tesla roadster into space with a dummy astronaut strapped into the driving seat and David Bowie’s ‘Life On Mars’ blaring out of the stereo.
However, not everyone shares Musk’s sense of humour – with even some of his business partners questioning the wisdom of the flamethrower launch. US politician Miguel Santiago, who sits on the California Assembly –one of Musk’s tunnel-project clients – announced: “The state of California, and the county and city of Los Angeles, have entrusted Mr Musk to help alleviate a real public-policy problem here by executing a tunnel under the city to help alleviate traffic … Like most Americans, I am in awe in of Mr Musk’s genius, [but] I cannot even begin to imagine the problems a flamethrower would cause firefighters and police officers alike.”
With Santiago’s reaction in mind, then, what are the main pros and cons of a maverick approach to leadership – and when can it become more of a hindrance than a help?
The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “If you’re trying to harness a maverick’s creative genius and innovative capacity, you will often find that what fascinates and drives them is the process of unleashing the new, however it takes shape. To that type of person, it won’t really matter if the end result addresses a shared, public need or a much more discreet and personal one – and if the solution happens to be somewhat wacky or unusual, then so much the better.
“In cases where that person has a particularly vivid imagination, it will be a challenge to tame that lightning. It will be difficult to say to them, ‘By all means think outside the box, but understand that this venture must be turned into a commercial success, or something that answers a social need so effectively that local governments and authorities will want to invest in it.’ With those individuals, money isn’t really the driving force – it’s more about having those initial imaginings, and then bringing them to fruition, regardless of the calling.
As a PR exercise, Cooper points out, it is tempting to suggest that Musk’s flamethrower risks undermining his other brands – just as many businesspeople before him have harmed their firms with unguarded, offhand comments. “As we’ve pointed out in our blogs before,” she says, “the importance of health and safety in business is not to be underestimated, and we could be just one accident away from this flamethrower stunt backfiring horribly. But essentially, this product is a creature of Musk’s access to the kind of capacity that enables him to manufacture his wildest dreams. What a lot of people would leave as a drawing, he wants to make a reality.”
However, Cooper notes: “just because he’s incredibly innovative, and has had some fantastic ideas about tunnels and rockets, doesn’t mean that he’s not a flawed human being with ample scope for making mistakes. In a way, he should probably shoulder a larger burden of responsibility than most leaders, purely because he operates on the leading edge. If you can make an idea happen almost instantaneously, you’re in a very different position to someone who only has an idea. But being able to realise a vision at speed doesn’t automatically make that vision valid.”
She adds: “Mavericks are as mercurial and capricious as they are passionate and creative. If they are surrounded by a team that knows how to earth their electricity and encourage them to focus on the ultimate impacts and outcomes – good and bad – of their ideas, then they can be a hugely positive force.”
For thoughts on how to channel creativity into productive results, check out these learning resources from the Institute
Image of Musk’s flamethrower courtesy of the Boring Company