Provocation is a force for change that often carries a negative connotation. It’s a term that is often linked to aggressive behavior, or a characteristic that incites conflict and struggle. And while the ability to provoke has created some of the most disastrous events in the history of the world, like anything, it has the same power to create good, new, transformative milestones.
At its core, provocation is meant to challenge the status quo and provoke people to think differently, about themselves, about the world, about anything that’s important. To provoke is more often about asking questions than it is about making statements. If you want to provoke, ask yourself an honest question.
A Case Study in Provocation: Elon Musk
In 2006, a small start-up company by the name of Tesla began to manufacture electric luxury sports cars in Silicon Valley. Four years later, Tesla received a $465 million loan from the Department of Energy’s loan programs office—a loan that Tesla was able to repay nine years early due to its success. At the time, many mainstream automakers weren’t taking this transition to electric seriously. Today, most—if not all—major automakers are taking strides in electric car manufacturing.
Since the start of Tesla, Elon Musk—the CEO of Tesla, SpaceX, Neuralink, and the instigator of several other projects—has provoked change. Ranked as the twenty-first most powerful person on Forbes’s December 2016 list, Musk didn’t get there by maintaining the status quo. Instead, Musk has, without a doubt, provoked the world to think differently about infrastructure, transportation, and the beyond. From electric cars to private-section space expeditions, he continues to be at the forefront of leading our society to consider what’s possible with ideas that some may think are impossible.
How does he achieve this? Surely people aren’t likely to listen to someone who seems completely outrageous in their ideas. While Musk’s ideas may seem unrealistic to some, his technical skill—combined with an ability to help individuals understand how to design a world that seems both familiar and totally different—captures attention, motivates support, and ultimately provokes change.
You can get a feel for this yourself by watching his interview with TED Talk’s Head Curator, Chris Anderson. In this interview, he describes (and shows) driving into the earth to create tunnels that allow cars to move at unprecedented speeds. The combination of his engineering skill and ability to explain how leaves you believing this is indeed possible.
Who thinks like this? Visionary leaders who provoke. Like all great leaders, what seems revolutionary and provocative, if not downright impossible, will become our present one day soon. Whether it’s a transformative form of transportation, or a new corporate policy that changes the status quo, individuals who lead and communicate in a manner that provokes change are needed in every industry and every workplace. Be that leader.
For more on the language of leadership and how enhanced communication skills can transform your life and career, check out my book, A Climb to the Top.