If you’ve been following the headlines of Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, you might be wondering what drives someone like Musk, already the CEO of both Tesla and SpaceX, to do what he does. Whether you love him or hate him, think he is one of the most innovative entrepreneurs of our time, a raging egomaniac or a “chaos agent” (as he was recently labeled by the New York Times), we’re all wondering what makes this guy tick. Here, we break down some of Musk’s observable traits using the lens of the DISC personality system.
Although people, leadership styles and team dynamics are highly complex, the DISC personality system shows us that there are certain innate work traits that most people adhere to over time. The DISC details four primary personality types at work: Drive, Influence, Support and Clarity. Each type has different strengths, weaknesses and motivations that help explain how we interact with others and our work environments. Although not many of us may have the more extreme attributes of Musk’s personality (like his seemingly limitless appetite for risk and imperviousness to criticism), many of us still might recognize some of Musk’s “Drive” DISC personality traits in ourselves, our co-workers or our boss.
In this blog, we’ll provide a brief history and explanation of the DISC personality theory and make the case that Musk’s personality type fits within the “Drive” DISC type, based on his observable behavior.
The DISC personality system
The DISC was first theorized in the 1920s by Dr. William Marston, a psychologist whose research focused on observable and measurable behavior. (Interestingly, Marston also invented the systolic blood pressure test and, along with his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston, the lie detector test and the comic book character Wonder Woman). The DISC system is a simple yet elegant way to describe human emotion and behavior. Marston’s system includes four DISC types. While everyone has all four capabilities, in his theory, each of us tends to rely on one or two of those. Industrial psychologist Walter V. Clarke furthered the DISC theory and developed the first psychometric assessment based on it in the 1940s.
Since then, a variety of validated DISC assessments have flourished, and they’ve been used within large organizations for decades to help teams become more agile, communicate better and collaborate more effectively. The DISC is used most often within work settings, as it can bridge communication divides within teams and help make seemingly unexplainable behaviors more clear. Those who take the DISC can better understand their own dominant traits, but also understand how these traits show up with one’s co-workers, managers or employees.
Curious about your own DISC personality type? You can take Truity’s free, validated DISC test here.
The four DISC personality types
Drive (also known as Dominance). Drive relates to control, power and assertiveness. People who are high in Drive like to get things done and are results-oriented. They tend to be ambitious, competitive and persuasive. If you have a lot of Drive, you're likely to enjoy taking on new challenges and being in charge.
Influencee (also known as Inducement) Influence relates to people, interaction and communication. People who are high in Influence are interested in relationships, networking and persuasion. If you have a lot of Influence, you're likely to enjoy social situations and working with people.
Support (Also known as Submission). Support relates to patience, thoughtfulness and harmony. People who are high in Support are warm and accepting of others, and they like structure and organization. If you have a lot of Support, you're likely to enjoy working hard behind the scenes and being part of a team.
Clarity (Also known as Compliance). Clarity relates to structure, organization and correctness. People who are high in Clarity are detail-oriented, quality-conscious and cautious when making decisions and taking action. If you have a lot of Clarity, you're likely to enjoy working intentionally to solve challenging problems.
Elon at Work: Evidence of the “Drive” DISC style
To be clear, few of us are likely to display some of the more extreme traits of Musk’s personality (nor are many of us causing international incidents, launching rockets or overseeing controversial company take-overs all in the same week, either). However, there are many core elements of the Drive style which can be found in Musk’s actions in the workplace over time. Here, we dissect the evidence:
- Drive types are bold, competitive and risk-taking. In Musk’s case these traits are consistently observable, in that he has taken enormous risks and leaps of faith across his career. With Tesla, his competitive drive to go up against the major car manufacturers with a small upstart that was using breakthrough new technology is a clear example. Further, SpaceX has become a category leader in one of the most difficult, highly complex and competitive fields that now exists – space exploration and development. Musk tweeted once, “Creating a rocket company has to be one of the dumbest and hardest ways to ‘make money,’” at one point when both SpaceX and Tesla were on the edge of bankruptcy and Musk had lost his position as CEO of two other tech companies. It cannot be said that he is afraid of experimentation or failure, and he has helped create risk-taking, innovative cultures at many of his businesses.
- Drive types approach conflict head-on and are highly assured in their opinions. They also can be resistant to the advice and influence of those around them. An example of this type of behavior can be found in Musk tweeting “why pay union dues & give up stock options for nothing?” and firing a key union organizer in the midst of a union organizing effort at one of Tesla’s factories – which instantly ran afoul of the National Labor Relations Board rules for union organizing campaigns. It seems hard to imagine that Tesla’s attorneys did not advise him of these rules, an example of Musk’s impetus to ignore counsel as well as to meet conflict directly.
The take-over of Twitter is another example of these Drive traits, with Musk taking the helm of the social networking giant and then implementing a series of controversial changes to the platform within days of closing the deal. Several academics, journalists and others who analyze social media companies – along with a fair chunk of Twitter users, have lambasted him for it, questioning his credentials and his hubris in thinking he can “fix” the sticky, complex quagmire of content moderation, free speech, hate speech and advertiser prerogatives. Musk has, of course, hit them right back.
- Those with the Drive style set lofty goals and are results-oriented. When people show Drive, they set high goals and hold their teams accountable. Musk notoriously does so at his companies, including Tesla, where he purposely set out-of-reach production goals quarter over quarter for his employees, as detailed by the Wall Street Journal.
- Drive types expect everyone to have their strong work ethic – and they lead by example. Musk has reportedly worked up to 120 hours a week, and his teams are legendarily motivated to put in long hours too. He has even slept on the factory floor to meet crunch production goals at Tesla and to show the team there he was not "drinking Mai Tais on a tropical island."
- Drive types like to take charge, make decisions and control the direction of tasks and projects. They are often described as natural leaders. Musk joins the ranks of other famous Drive type executives, including Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos. It is estimated that Drive types comprise just 9% of the total workforce, but they likely represent a disproportionate share of senior executives and CEOs. Drive is useful in leadership positions as it helps to push to get the job done, inspire confidence and make executive decisions. In fact, highly Driven people may be frustrated in roles with no opportunity for leadership.
- Drive types tend to thrive in pressured, crisis-driven climates. People look to Drive types for their leadership and decisiveness in times of crisis, one of their core strengths. The examples of this with Musk are almost too many to list, with him making bold decisions in the face of intense headwinds and crises that helped make Tesla and SpaceX leaders in their categories. With Musk, in some cases he appears to be the instigator of that chaos too (see the New York Times story labeling him a “Geopolitical Chaos Agent" over his intervention in Ukraine-US relations or his tweets that he could take Tesla private, which roiled the company and public markets and ultimately resulted in a landmark SEC fine).
- Drive types are direct and plain speaking in work settings. Musk is known for “telling it like it is,” with employees in good times and bad, including advising Tesla workers that they need to report back to the office in his unvarnished style (that they “can pretend to work somewhere else,” if they want to stay remote). While largely valued for being able to communicate clearly, when dysfunctional or under stress, some Drive types may struggle with controlling their words and tempers. Reports of Musk’s temper flaring with both SpaceX and Tesla engineers have been widely detailed in the Wall Street Journal reporter Tim Higgins’ book on the entrepreneur.
Although the DISC can’t help you if you have a CEO who tweets at will (!), it may help you better understand them and improve your own team dynamics. A high-performing team will always be greater than the sum of its individual parts, but by understanding the unique strengths and blindspots of each member, a work team can become much more agile, better integrate new teammates, repair fractures and reduce conflict.