5 lessons for Doctors from Elon Musk

Ask entrepreneurs and innovators who they most admire and one name invariably rises toward the top of the list.

Elon Reeve Musk

Elon Musk is a South African – Canadian – American billionaire technology entrepreneur. He is currently riding a wave of successes at his three main companies. If his form continues, he may well be remembered as one of the great figures of the 21st century.

  • At Tesla, Musk is disrupting the motor industry by making electric cars that are actually usable and desired by consumers. He has traditional automakers playing catch up.
  • SolarCity is making solar roof tiles and home battery storage solutions with the aim of eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels.
  • At SpaceX, Musk has dramatically cut the cost of sending satellites, and soon humans, to space by making reusable rockets a reality. He ultimately aims to make mankind an interplanetary species and establish a colony on Mars.

Not content to simultaneously revolutionise 3 industries, he has also found time to form companies to promote various other ideas, causes and concepts.

  • Supersonic intercity travel in vacuum tubes (HyperLoop)
  • Saving the world from rogue Artificial Intelligences (OpenAI)
  • Building a network of tunnels under Los Angeles to alleviate traffic congestion (TheBoringCompany)
  • Melding the capabilities of man and computer with brain-machine interfaces (Neuralink)

And he still has had time to father 6 children and inspire Robert Downey Junior’s portrayal of Tony Stark in the recent Marvel Iron Man and Avenger films…

Elon Musk makes a cameo in Iron Man 2

In fact it is difficult to write about Musk without feeling like a large man crush is being revealed to the world.

Musk also his his critics. He has been called a hyperactive, attention seeking, exaggerater. Former employees and colleagues will often describe a demanding and sometimes bullying darker side.

Such was my fascination with this figure that I recently read Ashley Vance’s biography of Musk.

I have tried to digest the information and distill some lessons relevant to my life/role as a GP interested in organisational development and technology… They may be of interest to you too…

1. Be Visionary

Musk provides clear and inspiring visions for what is to be achieved at each of his companies. Particularly in the early years, he would personally communicate his vision to key potential recruits in order to attract the best staff. Employees gladly work at his companies under significant pressure, in challenging conditions and without the best pay in return for the chance to work toward his inspiring goals.

Remember “Visionaries”? It’s an 80s thing…
  • For gifted aerospace graduates, if you want to contribute to actually delivering rapid progress towards making mankind a spacefaring civilisation, then you work at SpaceX.
  • For energy scientists, if you want help speed up mankind’s transition to cheap sustainable energy sources, then you work at Tesla or Solar City.

For a GP surgery, the vision might simply be delivering the best healthcare possible with the available resources. But just sharing and articulating this vision with passion can help attract recruit and motivate the right staff. In a difficult recruiting environment, this could make a big difference.

2. Use Vertical Integration

This is the strategy whereby an organisation expands its ownership and control of processes up and down its production and value chains. The opposite, perhaps, of outsourcing.

Musks ran into problems early on at SpaceX and Tesla with suppliers. He found that they could be slow, inflexible, and inexplicably expensive. He found that by bringing the design and production of components from fuel tanks to guidance systems in house, they could reduce costs and production times and improve quality. Tesla built its own network of shop showrooms in malls and retail locations, allowing them to ensure a high quality sales experience and avoid sharing profits with dealerships.

We see the idea of vertical integration entering (perhaps re-entering) the NHS with the concepts of MCPs (Multispecialty Community Providers) reaching up from primary care to deliver secondary care functions, PACs (Primary and Acute Care Systems) reaching down to deliver primary and community care and perhaps in emerging ACS models (Accountable Care systems).

In General Practice, vertical integration could take the form of developing specialist skills and services in house to reduce the cost to the organisation of referrals and to reduce waiting times and improve the experience for patients. Dispensing prescriptions is an older example of this and perhaps GP alliances and federations should look again at this.

3. Seek Synergy

Musk is a busy, even hyperactive entrepreneur, and at first glance his companies might look like an odd collection of ill fitting interests. However, look more closely and there is synergy at play.

Tesla and SpaceX share staff and advances in manufacturing techniques and material science. Solar City’s efficient solar cells will power Tesla’s network of free charging stations. Both companies will use advanced batteries from Tesla’s “gigafactory”.

All of Musk’s interests work towards an optimistic vision of a brighter future for mankind facilitated by advances in transportation and energy.

There is perhaps a personal lesson here for those Medics who like to be busy and take on challenges. We might achieve more with less stress if we take on complementary roles with similar skillsets and knowledge requirements. We can choose to work with organisations that can be brought closer into productive collaborations.

For organisations, there is a sense that more could be achieved by working with complimentary partners through open collaboration.

4. Challenge the Status Quo

Before SpaceX, the space launch industry had come to feel like an exercise in the politics of using government contracts to maintain tens of thousands of jobs in aerospace contractors across as many American States as possible. Genuine advancement toward opening up space to more people and businesses had slowed and almost stopped.

SpaceX have taken a very different approach, bringing activities “in house” and cutting costs where they can. They have reduced the cost of launching a government satellite from $424m to $65m! It is expected that further dramatic cost reductions will follow. This reduction should lead to increased access to and commercialisation of space producing a commercial space sector delivering many more jobs than it does today.

The Quo

In medicine, just because something has ever been so, does not mean that it cannot be improved or shouldn’t be changed. In primary care and general practice I wonders if our status quo may soon face real challenge from new care delivery models and approaches.

That being said, it is important to objectively assess the value of what we already have in the NHS and General Practice. New is not always best.

5. Work Life Choices, Not Balance?

Musk’s schedule sees him work 7 days and 100 hours a week (sound familiar?). He is single with 3 divorces behind him. He has risked financial ruin at certain key moments in the history of Tesla and SpaceX. Many previous employees and partners describe him as rude, stubborn, ruthless and very difficult to work with. He works extremely hard, takes stressful risks and is certainly not everybody’s friend.

Yet the impression is that Musk is content with this, he appears driven by a desire to achieve nothing less than saving the human race from destroying itself. He seems to feel that the choices he has made about work, life and balance are right for him.

Not even Elon Musk can have it all…

The lesson hear may be to think in terms of work life choices rather than balance. It is important to take a step back and think about the goals we have for our work and personal lives. We can make proactive choices about what we do and where and who we work with and for. We ultimately have more control than we might think. As we know, control is an important factor that can diffuse the experience of stress.


Of course, Healthcare can be very different from the energy, computing and aerospace industries. But Elon Musk and his approach is certainly an interesting example to examine.

Thanks for reading to the end.

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