Elon Musk Says What Separates Great Leaders From the Pack Comes Down to 3 Words
A rare but effective definition of leadership, courtesy of Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
Elon Musk, the head of Tesla and X (formerly Twitter), may not exactly be the poster boy for servant leadership — the kind that inspires loyalty and commitment. But now and then, as surprising as it may be, Musk delivers positive advice intended to benefit his employees.
In a leaked all-hands email to Tesla employees, Musk made quite a bold statement when he said he’d roll up his sleeves and tackle the same tasks as the Tesla factory workers who were getting injured on the job. It was a powerful, selfless leadership move to address concerns about worker safety.
Serve your team
Elon then wrote something uncharacteristic for someone with his public persona, so we must take his word that he meant what he wrote. He defined leadership for Tesla managers in three words: serve your team.
Here’s the quote:
I am convinced that managers should work at the forefront, in the same work environment as the entire team. Even though I run the company myself, I still do not have my own office and often moved my workplace to the most challenging area in the factory and slept on the factory floor when there was a real crisis. Managers should always take care of their team before they take care of themselves — the supervisor is there to serve his team — not the other way round. [Emphasis mine]
This part of his email demonstrated that rare side of servant leadership I often speak about in my keynotes, where leaders put the people who work for them ahead of themselves. Keep in mind, this was pre-COVID and before the $44 billion takeover of Twitter, where he fired over 80 percent of employees.
The human side of Elon
But in this case, Elon’s statement was a clear signal that he took the well-being of his Tesla team seriously. It showed a willingness to lead by example and understand the challenges his employees faced on the ground. So we can ascertain that there is a human side to Elon, one that cares about people on some level.
Backed by research
The evidence on servant leadership is overwhelming and too numerous to cover here. One finding I’ve tracked in recent years is that it pumps up the team with confidence, which leads to high performance. Published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers studied 304 employees representing 71 teams in five banks. They concluded that servant leaders facilitate team confidence, affirming the strengths and potential of the team and providing development support.
In separate research, the University of Illinois at Chicago conducted a servant leadership study of 961 employees at 71 Jason’s Deli restaurants in 10 metropolitan areas in the U.S.
The research found that when bosses serve their employees, it’s good for business. Measurable increases in key business metrics like job performance (6 percent), customer service (8 percent), and employee retention (50 percent) were observed.
Servant leadership is much more than a nice thing to do for your employees; it’s good for the bottom line.
Elon Musk is a smart cookie. And this story suggests to me that deep down, he understands that to get the best out of employees, leaders must take care of their needs.