Biographer Walter Isaacson Discusses Elon Musk’s Leadership Style and Role Model

Musk applies history lessons to corporate life.

Walter Isaacson and Elon Musk
Walter Isaacson interviewing Elon Musk during the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit on October 8, 2014 in San Francisco, California. Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Vanity Fair

Elon Musk loves studying the history of wars for leadership insights. The Tesla (TSLA) and SpaceX CEO looks up to French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte as a role model, Musk’s biographer Walter Isaacson revealed in an interview published today (August 14).

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“He likes military history, and he believes there are lessons that apply to corporate life,” Isaacson told Axios cofounder Mike Allen. Musk likes learning from World War I history, in particular, Isaacson said, adding one of Musk’s favorite resources is Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History” podcast. In an interview with Isaacson for the book, Musk’s former girlfriend, Grimes, said she and Musk used to “listen to an hour of war history before bed.”

Musk “believes that wherever Napoleon was, that’s where his armies would do best. So he liked to show up late at night on the assembly lines at Tesla and SpaceX,” Isaacson said. In Isaacson’s forthcoming book, Elon Musk, which hits bookstores on Sept. 12, Musk recalled that one time he spent an hour supervising the construction of a Starship rocket booster at SpaceX’s development site in Boca Chica, Texas. Musk, the CEO of at least five companies, wanted to be there because “if they see their general on the battlefield, they will be more motivated,” he told Isaacson. “I learned that by reading about Napoleon.”

‘This whole cage match idea is completely ridiculous.’

Musk’s obsession with masculine bravado spills into his business rivalries, too. In July, he proposed a cage fight with Meta (META) CEO Mark Zuckerberg over the launch of Threads, Meta’s social platform competing with Musk’s Twitter. Last week, Musk suggested the fight will be live-streamed from the Colosseum in Rome. Yesterday (August 13), Musk privately asked Zuckerberg for a practice fight at Zuckerberg’s home in Palo Alto, Calif. Zuckerberg, who has been training intensely for mixed martial arts (MMA) this year, declined. “If Elon ever gets serious about a real date and official event, he knows how to reach me,” Zuckerberg posted on Threads. “I’m going to focus on competing with people who take the sport seriously.”

Isaacson doesn’t “make predictions” when it comes to Musk, but thinks the fight “seems unlikely,” he told Axios’s Allen. “This whole cage match idea is completely ridiculous.”

Biographer Walter Isaacson Discusses Elon Musk’s Leadership Style and Role Model