Good leadership is about having good reflexes, especially in moments of crisis. When there’s a problem in a group, most leaders tend to respond by protecting the group: letting people know it’s going to be okay, and putting problem in wider perspective. They strive send a signal of reassurance: This isn’t a big deal; we can get past it.
But is that the smartest response? Consider this recent email from Tesla CEO Elon Musk that captures his response to a particular crisis: a report that showed injury rates in Tesla’s Fremont factory were dangerously high.
Here’s the key part of Musk’s email:
No words can express how much I care about your safety and wellbeing. It breaks my heart when someone is injured building cars and trying their best to make Tesla successful.
Going forward, I’ve asked that every injury be reported directly to me, without exception. I’m meeting with the safety team every week and would like to meet every injured person as soon as they are well, so that I can understand from them exactly what we need to do to make it better. I will then go down to the production line and perform the same task that they perform.
This is what all managers at Tesla should do as a matter of course. At Tesla, we lead from the front line, not from some safe and comfortable ivory tower. Managers must always put their team’s safety above their own.
Notice first what Musk doesn’t do: he doesn’t protect the group or minimize the problem. Instead, he connects with the group through three signals:
1) He expresses intense personal regret (“It breaks my heart”)
2) He demonstrates caring action (“I’ve asked that every injury be reported to me… I would like to meet with every injured person… I will work on the production line”)
3) He defines the culture’s identity (“At Tesla, we lead from the front line, not from some safe and comfortable ivory tower”)
In a few dozen words, Musk proves that cultural leadership is not about protection — it’s about connection.