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It Took Elon Musk 1 Short Sentence to Give the Best Advice You’ll Hear Today on Leadership and Hiring

Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said something uncharacteristic. But when you think about it, he’s right.

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BY Marcel Schwantes - 10 Jan 2018

It Took Elon Musk 1 Short Sentence to Give the Best Advice You'll Hear Today on Leadership and Hiring

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

A few years ago at an SXSW conference, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said something so uncharacteristic for a scientifically-minded, tech entrepreneur, it made many people do a double take.

As published in Vanity Fair, a question came from an audience member who asked about "the biggest mistake" of Musk's life. After a long and uncomfortable pause, here was his response:

The biggest mistake, in general, I've made, is to put too much of a weighting on someone's talent and not enough on their personality. And I've made that mistake several times. I think it actually matters whether somebody has a good heart, it really does. I've made the mistake of thinking that it's sometimes just about the brain.

Did he just say...yes he did. In fact, Musk's "biggest mistake" is made over and over again by countless people in leadership positions every day: not hiring or promoting the right knowledge workers with intangibles beyond talent and brain. But first, lets clarify the wording in this now-infamous quote.

What Musk meant by "personality."

According to Dr. Travis Bradberry, author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, personality "is the result of hard-wired preferences, such as the inclination toward introversion or extroversion."

Basically, it's stable over a lifetime and doesn't change. Sure, Musk could have been referring to wanting to hire extroverted, creative geniuses bordering on narcissistic tendencies, to develop world-changing product. But if such a person can't work well in teams or lacks integrity ("doing the right thing"), you're merely stuck with a talented jerk to the detriment of the team.

I think Musk meant something else by "personality."

Enter emotional intelligence.

If you work with or lead a mixed bag of people, you've noticed that personality types have different communication styles, which could be a problem since we're not naturally wired to communicate to each other's style. When you add to the mix generational, cultural, and gender differences, it can get messy.

For a company like Musk's SpaceX, or any other tech company, if you want to get that team-collaboration vibe that's virtually drama-free and running on all cylinders, it's important to have people on the team who understand each other's style of communicating and collaborating, as well as their own.

This is where emotional intelligence (EQ) comes in and does its best work. EQ is the bedrock for a host of crucial people skills that impact most everything we do and say in the workplace: decision-making, anger management, social skills, accountability, empathy and teamwork, to name a few.

And, I firmly believe, this is the "personality" that Musk may have been alluding to when he openly admitted to not putting enough weight on it. Imagine developing the technologies that will ultimately get us to Mars without those people intangibles in place.

Yes, talent (and intelligence, for that matter) is absolutely required and essential for success. But, as Musk may have been hinting, talent to write code that simulates flight scenarios, translates petabytes of data, and performs computational fluid dynamics without the capacity to manage your emotions, collaborate, belong, serve others, and build healthy relationships on the team is a gigantic waste of talent.

Musk's "heart" comment.

Musk said, "I think it actually matters whether somebody has a good heart, it really does." That's the part of the quote that turned heads. Heart? Really, Elon? Being the science brainiac that he is, it was surprising. But I agree. So I figured Musk would appreciate a little breakthrough science on the heart, to affirm that his sentiments are on the right track.

Mark C. Crowley, author of Lead from the Heart, wrote a compelling article documenting the heart's relationship to the brain. He says the heart "routinely informs the brain of the body's emotional state, and the outcome has a profound impact on brain functioning and decision-making." But let me preface, you first have to have heart, not just "a heart."

Digging deeper, it gets interesting. Crowley asked HeartMath Institute's Director of Research, Rollin McCraty, Ph.D, to expand further on this scientific discovery:

"When human beings experience a steady flow of positive feelings and emotions (e.g. appreciation, inspiration and happiness), the heart flips into what's called 'coherence.' And when people feel appreciated by their bosses, supported, healthily connected to the people they work with, growing, loved and able to live meaningful lives, this inherently creates coherence. All boiled down, it means the communication going on between the heart and mind is so ideal that it puts people into their optimal level of performance."

The case for hiring people with a "good heart."

If Dr. McCraty's quote sounds like metaphysical psychobabble, consider the evidence found in work cultures that practice heart-squeezing, organizational kindness. Don't laugh now but it actually makes perfect business sense. I'll leave you with this to mull over:

  • Kindness fosters trust within an organization: PwC's 2016 CEO Survey discovered that kindness eliminates communication barriers, minimizes negative competition among staff, and strengthens relationships with other business partners and investors.
  • Kindness helps with hiring talent: A study from the University of Delaware shows that a culture of kindness attracts people to join a company, and lowers recruiting, hiring, and training cost.
  • Kindness boosts employee engagement: It enhances engagement of both employees and customers. Research also indicates that loyalty increases when employees have opportunities to demonstrate kindness in the workplace.
  • Kindness fuels learning and innovation: When employees are free to make mistakes and learn from failure, it fosters innovation because it increases what researchers from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor call 'psychological safety.' Kindness is an important aspect of creating new ideas.