Elon Musk’s Controversial Return to the Office Plan Makes 1 Important Point Every Leader Should Follow

Earlier this week, a Twitter user posted an email from Musk to his executive team telling them to show up to the office for “a minimum of 40 hours” or quit. He used a few more words than that, but that’s the basic sentiment. 

That, of course, generated lots of opinions from people who either a) think requiring people to come back to the office is bad, or b) generally just think Elon Musk is not a good guy. I suppose there are plenty of data points to support either of those conclusions, but that’s not what this is really about. What this is really about is how you lead people, which is relevant to every entrepreneur. 

Musk didn’t directly confirm the email was authentic, but he did weigh in. “They should pretend to work somewhere else,” Musk tweeted when asked what he would say to people who push back on the idea that everyone should be in the office. 

There is another theory, which goes that Musk sent that email to encourage people to resign ahead of a round of layoffs. That’s supported by another email he sent suggesting Tesla needs to cut 10 percent of its salaried workforce, not including “anyone actually building cars, battery packs, or installing solar.”

It’s a lot to sort through. There is, however, an important lesson in the middle of it all. In a follow-up email to the entire company, Musk doubled down on his come-back-to-the-office-or-else strategy.

The more senior you are, the more visible must be your presence. That is why I lived in the factory so much–so that those on the line could see me working alongside them. If I had not done that Tesla would have gone bankrupt.

Musk is referring to the Model 3 launch, which he has publicly said almost bankrupted the company. During a time he has previously referred to as “production and logistics hell,” Musk slept on the floor of Tesla’s Fremont, California factory. 

I don’t know that sleeping on a factory floor is necessarily the key to success, but I do think Musk has a point. Basically, that point is this: the greater your scope of influence, the greater your scope of accountability. 

Listen, you can disagree with Musk’s style. You can argue that his view on returning to work is short-sided and doesn’t take into consideration the fact that people have been—in many cases–more productive than ever over the past two years. You can even argue that laying off some 10,000 employees while throwing away $40 billion to buy Twitter is–at best–a bad look.

What seems very clear to me, however, is that Musk sees Tesla as having become top-heavy and inefficient. Note that his email about layoffs exempts employees who work on the line. Musk is challenging his leadership to step it up and is actively trying to weed out anyone not up to the task. 

Musk’s feelings on the subject seem to come from his feeling that everyone should be working as hard as he is. We’ll set aside for a minute that Musk’s purported work ethic is neither healthy nor sustainable. Obviously, every leader wants to have people on the team who work hard–especially if they are leading others. 

You see, leadership is all about influence. Influence, it turns out, is about relationships. Most leaders think of influence as something you are entitled to because of a title or a role. That’s only true to the extent that your role creates a relationship between you and your team. Beyond that, your ability to influence people to do hard things is all about whether they see you as willing to do the same.

Everyone can relate to the feeling of having a boss that seemingly sits around in an office while his or her employees do the real work. Nothing about that inspires people to do their best work. It just creates resentment and animosity. Eventually, you start to lose people. 

Now, imagine if the boss isn’t sitting in an office, but is hanging out at home, literally phoning–or, Zooming–it in. Musk’s point is that if the people who actually make things have to show up, so does everyone else. Not because you can’t get work done outside the office, but because everything else rises and falls on leadership, and that’s important enough that leaders have to show up

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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