Captain of a large ship with a small rudder

I recently listened to an interview with Elon Musk at the Code Conference. Elon shared his thoughts on a wide range of topics including when autonomous cars will be ready, how soon we’ll be able to start sending people to Mars, and whether we’re living in a simulation. I recommend you watch the full interview below.

However, the most interesting part of the interview for me was when he shared his view that “Being US President is like being captain of a large ship with a small rudder – there’s a limit to how much damage they can do.”

Elon shared this thought in the context of the current election cycle in a democracy like the US. This is why he focused on the damage that a potential President can do. However, the same is true for the positive impact that a President can have. For example, there’s only so much that a President can do to drive short term economic growth during his presidency. We tend to attribute much more of a country’s economic outcomes to the policies of the President in power during that time than is really the case. Factors like a country’s sectoral innovation, private and public debt levels, current account status, and monetary policy are all fully or largely outside of the President’s control.

The same is true in entrepreneurship. From the outside, it’s tempting to ascribe the successes and failures of startups to founders. It’s tempting to make heroes and villains out of entrepreneurs.

However, this is a misattribution. Just like being President, being a founder is like being captain of a large ship with a small rudder. The ship is the startup, the sailors are the team, and the waters are the market dynamics. The sailors and the waters have a greater impact on the ship’s destination than the captain. The captain’s most important decisions therefore consist of picking sailors, deciding which waters to navigate and how, and keeping sailors motivated during the journey. That’s why recruitment, setting vision and strategy, and establishing culture are a founder’s most important responsibilities.

Also published on Medium.