Ethical Leadership – Elon Musk And Tesla

Ethical Leadership

Exploration of Ethical Leadership: This paper evaluates Elon Musk’s Ethical Leadership as CEO of Tesla, SpaceX, Neuralink and X, emphasising ethical leadership, values and ethical demonstration through the Triad of Awareness.

Vincent Vu
Leadership and Ethics (Executive)
Executive Master of Business Administration

Table of Contents


Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, SpaceX, The Boring Company, Neuralink, and Chairman of X (formerly known as Twitter), is an enigmatic and controversial figure renowned for driving innovation and revolutionary ventures. Musk’s unconventional leadership style fuels some of the most technological advancements of our time, like SpaceX’s reusable rockets and Tesla’s electric car (Tesla, n.d.). However, his actions are not without criticism. Musk’s leadership style raises questions about the balance between ambition and ethical responsibility.

Ethical leadership is the understanding of self, “strengths, weaknesses, fears, limitations, and motivations” to lead effectively (Probst, 2024, Slide 3). This research analysis explores Elon Musk’s leadership through the framework of the triad of awareness. It aims to understand the intricacies of his values-based leadership approach and scrutinise the ethical implications of his choices. Additionally, this analysis will examine how Musk demonstrates ethical leadership.

Elon Musk’s leadership style prioritises tackling challenges with “a visionary mindset and an unwavering determination to push boundaries” (Smet, 2020). As Justin Rowlatt’s BBC News (2021) article, “Elon Musk’s six secrets to business success”, reveals, Musk’s drive extends beyond profit, reflecting Musk’s pursuit of personal goals, displaying his ambitions, strengths and self-awareness. Even in facing the threat of bankruptcy, Musk demonstrated undeniable belief in his ability to solve problems (BBC News, 2021). However, his singular focus was often met with unrealistic expectations, overshadowing his social awareness and empathetic considerations. As described by Misha Ketchell (2022) and Kat Boogaard (n.d.), allegations of toxic work environments and disregard for employee well-being suggest potential shortcomings in his understanding of social dynamics and impacts. Despite his organisational awareness, evident in his ability to identify market trends and navigate industry innovations, he is often compromised by prioritising short-term goals and ethical oversight.

Daniel Goleman (2001) explains that a leader requires a strong sense of “emotional intelligence—self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skill”. This examination of emotional intelligence emphasises and aligns with the triad of awareness, which consists of internal, external and organisational awareness. This analysis explores Musk’s leadership through the triad of awareness, seeking to offer a nuanced perspective. It examines how his values shape his companies to drive success and innovation in contrast to his ethically questionable leadership decisions. While his ambition undoubtedly contributes to remarkable technological innovations, the social costs and potential compromises to ethical principles require careful examination.

This paper aims to provide a critical analysis of Elon Musk’s ethical leadership trajectory. It will investigate whether Musk’s commitment to innovation precedes the values and moral responsibilities of effective, ethical leadership. The framework of the triad of awareness will offer a dimension to evaluate the complex relationship between Musk’s innovative drives, his commitment to his values and the ethical implications that exist through his organisations.

Triad of Awareness

Ethical leadership requires a multifaceted awareness beyond technical skills or strategic abilities. Daniel Goleman (2013) explains in his article that leaders must balance three distinct types of awareness:

Internal Awareness (Self-awareness)

Internal awareness, self-awareness or inward focus is the core aspect focusing on self-understanding (Wheeler, 2024). Daniel Goleman (2013) describes it as “hearing your inner voice”. Ethical leaders possess a strong sense of their values, motivations, strengths, weaknesses and biases. Internal awareness allows leaders to make conscious choices, recognise their limitations and identify potential conflicts.

External Awareness (Awareness of others)

External awareness, awareness of others, or “others focus” cultivates empathy for social dynamics or the ability to “build relationships” (Wheeler, 2024). Daniel Goleman (2013) emphasises external awareness as the ability to “focus on others”. It entails understanding and empathising with how actions affect employees, stakeholders and society. External awareness fosters a sense of responsibility and guides leaders towards decisions that consider the well-being of the collective.

Organisational Awareness (Outward awareness)

Outward awareness, organisational awareness or outward focus emphasises understanding the organisation and surroundings (Wheeler, 2024). Daniel Goleman (2013) explains that an outward awareness leader can “play out in the future” or be an innovator focusing on the wider world. An outward-awareness leader is aware and responsive to market trends, industry shifts and technological advancements. They possess a firm grasp of the internal workings of their company or institution. Organisational awareness allows leaders to explore complex environments and make informed strategic decisions.

The Triad of Awareness is a valuable framework for evaluating leadership through ethics. A balanced and well-developed triad equips leaders to make responsible choices while considering strategic goals, human costs and societal impact.

Elon Musk and the Triad of Awareness

Elon Musk’s leadership style demonstrates a complex relationship with the triad of awareness. His self-awareness is both a strength and a potential weakness. He possesses a deep understanding of his strengths, passions and vision. As Shahram Heshmat explains, Musk’s cognitive compartmentalisation allows him to tackle challenges sequentially with extraordinary focus (Heshmat, 2023). He excels at attracting and motivating top talent, fostering a sense of mission among his employees (Kay, 2022). This focus fuels his ambition but can lead to overconfidence and a disregard for alternative perspectives or constructive criticism, potentially hindering long-term growth. Musk demonstrates strong self-awareness in his relentless pursuit of innovation and unwavering belief in his ability to achieve and innovate. This self-confidence has undoubtedly propelled him to great heights but also sometimes manifests as over-optimistic timelines and a disregard for the limitations faced by his team (Hawkins, 2023). For instance, the repeated delays in Tesla’s Cybertruck production led to public disappointment and, ultimately, a decline in stock value (Jain, 2024). Seeking diverse perspectives and cultivating a culture of constructive criticism within his organisation could temper this ambition with greater realism.

External awareness is where Musk’s leadership faces the most criticism. External awareness focuses on “cognitive empathy, emotional empathy and empathetic concern” (Wheeler, 2024). Elon Musk’s visionary and innovative goals are often without consideration of his employees. Allegations paint a picture of a toxic work culture where employees are subject to long hours, unrealistic deadlines, unsafe work conditions, harassment and a general lack of empathy (Hawkins, 2023; Sainato, 2022). This raises concerns about whether his awareness extends to his actions’ social and emotional impact. Balancing his ambitions with empathy and employee support could improve team morale, loyalty and productivity. Musk could enhance his external awareness by promoting psychological safety, recognising the need for work-life balance and adopting a more collaborative communication style.

Musk’s organisational awareness is reflected in his grasp of emerging technologies, global trends and crises, such as climate change and artificial intelligence (AI). This organisational awareness is a cornerstone of his success, allowing him to identify and capitalise on market opportunities. Highlighted by Khan Rahat’s (2021) analysis of his leadership style, this focus on the grand vision sometimes comes at the cost of careful execution and a willingness to navigate the complexities of production and regulation. His focus on rapid innovation can sometimes overshadow ethical considerations, leading to decisions that harm his companies’ reputations. Examples like overpromising technological capabilities or regulatory clashes highlight the need to balance organisational awareness with a commitment to ethical actions (Nelson, 2023). To improve his focused leadership, Musk could surround himself with advisors who offer expertise in logistics and navigate regulatory hurdles with more foresight.

An examination of Musk’s actions through the Triad of Awareness reveals a leader with strong internal and organisational awareness, which is evident in his visionary goals and grasp of market trends. However, his internal focus can sometimes lead to overconfidence and a disregard for alternative perspectives. The most significant area for improvement lies in external awareness. Musk could cultivate a more collaborative and balanced leadership approach by fostering empathy, prioritising employee well-being and soliciting constructive feedback.

Values-Based Leadership

Elon Musk prioritises innovation, technological transformation and long-term sustainability (Tesla, n.d.). Musk’s leadership style directly correlates to these values. His values attract passionate employees and customers and contribute to his company’s success (Kay, 2022). Tesla’s innovation for sustainability and SpaceX’s affordable space exploration and travel embodies these core principles, demonstrating how values-based leadership can be a powerful catalyst for success. However, his values-driven approach can prioritise progress above immediate concerns. As Professor Josephine Sandler Nelson (2023) notes, the singular focus on goals can lead to labour violations, skirting regulations or prioritising technological milestones over their potential harms (2023). This “ends justify the means” mentality risks undermining the goals Musk seeks.

Transformational leaders inspire others to exceed their potential and surpass expectations (Riggio & Bass, 2006). Eisenbeiss Silke Astrid (2012) considers ethical leadership requires “treat(ing) others with dignity and respect”. His unwavering focus on innovation can push teams to their limits and create environments characterised by intense pressure (Sainato, 2022). This reflects Musk’s lack of compassion and concern for others and a lack of moral consideration as an authentic leader (May et al., 2003). Additionally, the pursuit of disruption and innovation can create clashes with established industries and regulators. A notable example is the ongoing debate between Tesla’s Autopilot features and regulatory concerns over their safety implications (Nelson, 2023). This tension highlights how a values-driven approach sometimes collides with ethical considerations and traditional frameworks.

Musk’s values-based leadership has a multifaceted impact. As a transformational leader, Musk is remarkable; he inspires loyalty and innovation, which are significant advantages. However, it is vital to acknowledge the potential pitfalls of this approach. Balancing his core values with more significant consideration for ethical implications and the well-being of his employees is crucial for building a sustainable and respected leadership model.

Ethical Leadership

Elon Musk’s leadership style frequently raises concerns about ethical conduct, resulting in a perplexing duality. His commitment to sustainable energy with Tesla shows he is a leader focused on addressing global issues while SpaceX pushes boundaries to benefit humanity (Tesla, n.d.). These actions suggest an ethical awareness and a willingness to act decisively. Conversely, reports of disregard for workplace safety demonstrate a pattern where ambition trumps ethical concerns (Hawkins, 2023; Sainato, 2022). Musk has drawn criticism for making misleading statements about his companies’ capabilities and timelines, which erodes public trust and potentially misleads investors (Nelson, 2023). This pattern of ethical lapses raises significant concerns for long-term success.

While Musk’s vision and goals aligned with certain ethical principles, his actions too often disregard process and immediate consequences, undermining his ethical leadership. An ethical leader often drives long-term sustainability and value, compared to short-term gains achieved through questionable actions (Sainato, 2022). The potential ramifications of these ethical missteps, including reputational damage, legal repercussions, and decreased investor confidence, should not be underestimated.

Elon Musk’s actions demonstrate that ethical leadership is not an inherent trait but an ongoing practice. His commitment to worthy causes and potential to positively impact the world are undeniable. Eisenbeiss Silke Astrid (2012) explains that an ethical leader is just, humane, responsible and sustainable. However, for his leadership to be considered ethical, it heavily depends on addressing his current practices. Musk requires greater adherence to transparency and accountability and prioritising his employees’ well-being alongside his ambitions.


Examining Musk’s leadership style through the Triad of Awareness exposes a crucial tension in his approach. Musk presents a deep connection between internal and organisational awareness, and his values-based commitment to innovation undoubtedly fuels technological advancement. However, a notable weakness in external awareness challenges the ethical foundation of his leadership. To achieve sustained innovation and long-term success, Musk must balance his ambition with a greater emphasis on collaboration, empathy towards employees and respect for ethical and regulatory frameworks. To be considered an ethical leader, Musk should address his commitment to social responsibility, employee welfare and collaborative decision-making, ensuring his company’s practice aligns with his vision.


BBC News. (2023). Elon Musk’s six secrets to business success. (Accessed: 12 April, 2024).

Boogaard, K. (n.d.). What’s the Elon Musk leadership style? Plus his top traits. Fingerprint for Success. (Accessed: 13 April 2024).
Carlson, C. (2024). Tesla Investor Blames ‘Toxic’ Elon Musk Amid Tesla Stock Crisis as Value Plummets. Daily Express US. (Accessed: 4 April 2024).

Eisenbeiss, S. A. (2012). Re-thinking ethical leadership: An interdisciplinary integrative approach. The Leadership Quarterly, 23(5), 791-808. (Accessed: April 15, 2024).

Goleman, D. (2001). What Makes a Leader. In Harvard Business Review On What Makes a Leader (Ch. 3. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press (A Harvard Business Review Paperback). Available at: (Accessed: 14 April 2024).

Goleman, D. (2013). The Focused Leader. In Harvard business review (Vol. 91, Issue 12, pp. 51-). Harvard Business Review (Accessed: 14 April 2024).

Hawkins, A. J. (2023). Tesla’s ‘ultra hardcore’ work culture — as told by its employees. The Verge. (Accessed: April 11, 2024).

Heshmat, S. (2023, September 11). Elon Musk’s Art of Compartmentalization. Psychology Today. (Accessed: 12 April, 2024)

Jain, S. (2024). Tesla Stock Faces Challenges Amid Production Woes: A Technical Analysis. Benzinga. (Accessed: April 1, 2024).

Kay, G. (2022). Read the internal Tesla employee survey from 2018, where employees called Elon Musk an ‘unapproachable tyrant’ who fires people’ because of his ego’. Business Insider. (Accessed: April 14, 2024).

Ketchell, M. (2022). Elon Musk’s ‘Hardcore’ Management Style: a Case Study in What Not To Do. The Conversation. (Accessed: 12 April, 2024).

Khan, M. R. (2021) A critical analysis of Elon Musk’s leadership in Tesla motors. Journal of Global Entrepreneurship Research. (Accessed: April 14, 2024).

May, D. R., Chan, A. Y. L., Hodges, T. D., & Avolio, B. J. (2003). Developing the moral component of authentic leadership. Organisational Dynamics, 32(3), 247-260. (Accessed: April 15, 2024).

Mueller, R. (2007). Machiavelli in the modern world. In Seeking Real Truths: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Machiavelli, Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill. (Accessed: April 15, 2024).

Nelson, J. S. (2023) The Business Ethics of Elon Musk: Tesla, Twitter, and the Tech Industry. Harvard Law School. (Accessed: April 14, 2024).


Google Rating
Based on 18 reviews