Elon Musk Sent a Controversial Email to Managers. It’s a Masterclass in Leading People

I came across a story about an email Elon Musk sent to his managers. The story, and others like it, characterized the email as an ultimatum from Musk: “do things my way, or you’re fired.” 

That would certainly raise some “toxic work environment” red flags, and it’s entirely possible that’s the case. Maybe working for the world’s richest man is a terrible experience. Perhaps people at Tesla hate it there. I have no idea, but I do know that drawing that conclusion based on this email is problematic. Why? Because that’s not what Musk said. In fact, it’s not even a reasonable interpretation of what Musk said.

On the contrary, the email is quite remarkable in that it lays out exactly how a leader should engage with his or her team. Here’s what the email said:

If an email is sent from me with explicit directions, there are only three actions allowed by managers:

1. Email me back to explain why what I said was incorrect. Sometimes I’m just plain wrong!
2. Request further clarification if what I said was ambiguous.
3. Executive the directions.

If none of the above are done, that manager will be asked to resign immediately.

You could argue that the email is a bit abrupt. Musk is known to be pretty blunt, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that an email he sent to his team would cut right to the chase. It also feels like it has a bit of an edge, as though Musk is responding to having sent out emails asking his team to do something, only to have them do nothing.

I don’t think that’s unique to Musk, however. I imagine this email looks a lot like those sent from just about every CEO of a company the size of Tesla. More importantly, however, Musk isn’t wrong. 

It’s worth pointing out that Musk starts by admitting that sometimes he might be wrong. When that’s the case, he invites managers to push back. “Email me back to explain why what I said was incorrect,” Musk wrote. It actually takes quite a bit of self-awareness to admit that “sometimes I’m just plain wrong.” 

The second acceptable response is to ask for more information. “Request further clarification if what I said was ambiguous,” Musk writes. If you don’t know how to carry out instructions, it’s reasonable to ask for clarification. If you’re not sure what your boss thinks, ask. If you aren’t sure what to do, the worst thing you can do is try to guess or make assumptions. Chances are, you’ll end up doing the wrong thing. 

But, when the instructions are clear, it’s not at all unreasonable for Musk to expect that his team will follow through. “If none of the above are done, that manager will be asked to resign immediately,” might sound harsh, but when you think about it, what other option is there? 

Basically, Musk is saying “You can prove me wrong, ask me for more information, or do what I ask, but doing nothing is not an option.” I think it’s perfectly fair for Musk to want to weed out people whose response is to do nothing. 

I suspect that some of the response to the email is due to the fact that the person writing it is worth more than $280 billion. It seems a bit ruthless for someone that wealthy to write an email telling people to do what he says or quit. Don’t let that distract you from an important lesson.

If a leader gives instructions that are clear and correct–and by correct, let’s assume that means they are legal and ethical–what reason could a team member have for not following through. And, we’re not just talking about team members. This email was sent to managers, meaning it was sent to individuals who are responsible for leading people and teams. It’s fair to expect more from people in that type of role. 

It’s pretty clear Musk does expect more. It’s clear from this email that he expects his team to push back when he’s wrong, to seek clarification when he’s ambiguous, and to reliably deliver on the strategy he sets for the team. So should every leader. 

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

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