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Why Elon Musk Got it All Wrong — Effective Leaders Need to Loosen the Reins Leaders are not just managers. They need to do more to build a team that can take on their roles with autonomy and passion for driving them to success.

By Mario Ciabarra Edited by Micah Zimmerman

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

In a flexible, hybrid and remote work environment, many leaders have failed to let go: The Elon Musks of the world are demanding their people come back to the office or else. These leaders worry that without the ability to look over everyone's shoulders, their employees aren't working, are quietly quitting or aren't working on the right things.

They may feel the need to babysit because they don't trust their team. But threats and micromanaging don't work. They haven't empowered their teams or inspired them with a shared mission. Maybe it's on them for not building that initial foundational trust.

It may seem that some jobs "need a babysitting culture," where people show up, punch a clock and spend the day waiting to leave. They're just picking up a paycheck. But the reality is that the promise of weekly payments alone can never buy loyalty, nor can it build a team passionate about working together on a shared mission. To create an environment where people love to come to work, leaders need to empower their teams, give autonomy and build a workforce prepared to take on responsibility.

Related: Empower the Employees Who Will Build an Amazing Culture

Letting go is more productive

Giving people the space and autonomy to succeed fuels their fire to achieve more. My first experience with this was with a boss named Ryan in my first post-college job. I still tell him that he was the best boss I ever had. From day one, Ryan would simply ask me to get something done. Then, when the deadline was approaching, he would ask if I had finished. He gave me complete freedom not to do the right thing. I probably could have done the job better, especially with more guidance, but I got it done, and it felt empowering. The experience grew my confidence.

People want the freedom to be empowered and create success. That's why people come to work at Quantum: They want that autonomy, and we give it to them. Our people are passionate about their work and have ideas to drive the company to success. I have made the mistake of being involved in the middle of a work task, and I've gotten lots of feedback on it. They would rather me just tell them what I want them to achieve and let go. When I empower my team members to rise to their best, they learn to trust me and work harder to achieve our goals in return.

Related: Why You Need to Stop Micromanaging Your Team and Learn to Let Go

Put guardrails in place

Of course, I can't just let go of every project and hope that everything will be fine: There must be some frameworks and guardrails in place to help, and sometimes we need to get a little closer to the fire. Balancing how and when to step in is critical, especially when things get tough. There have been moments where I have taken tighter reins — a 30-minute daily call to get feedback and adjust. But I asked everyone to let it happen because rarely will I be that leader who gets so deeply involved every time, and they know it. That's not my management style, so when I have to step in, they know it's a higher priority and a working discussion that fuels the need to get my hands dirty.

Elon Musk, on the other hand, is surrounded by smart people passionate about their mission, but his management style is the epitome of a leader who can't let go. It's worked for him because he's detail-oriented and gets minutely involved in everything to ensure success, but micromanagement doesn't work for most people.

Instead, we can provide rails or infrastructure to make sure everything is happening as it should. Ensure everyone understands the mission and is aligned around the core objectives before they take off running in the wrong direction. When we know everyone has their sights set on achieving the right outcomes, it's easier for us as leaders to step back and give them the autonomy they need.

Related: What Happens When You Empower Employees Instead of Micromanage Them?

How to build a workforce in a more flexible world

Especially with so many people working from home, it can be challenging for leaders to know that they're building the kind of workforce responsible enough to take on autonomy. Creating a workforce that wants to wake up daily and work towards the company's mission requires certain personal attributes. At Quantum, we look for three core values:

  1. Passion: It's hard to motivate someone to be passionate, so find people who already love their work. Ask them: "Are you passionate about what you do? Would you push me out of the way and get this done?" I want people who wake up passionate about our company's mission, and if they ever lose that feeling with our company, I would hope to help them re-ignite that passion or help them find their next job where they could find it again.
  2. Persistence: People can be passionate but not persistent enough to take something across the finish line. A friend of mine is passionate about art, an incredible artist who could be famous, but he struggles with rejection and the persistence needed to keep driving forward. Someone ready for autonomy must be willing to take on rejection, failures and "no's" to get across the finish line. It's a top attribute of an entrepreneur, and to have a team of 500 entrepreneurs that will fight through any obstacle is amazing to see in action.
  3. Integrity: If I can get people who are persistent and passionate but can't act with transparency — being honest with themselves, their peers and our customers — it doesn't matter how much we win, it won't be enjoyable. I want to come to work because it's fun, and when people aren't telling the truth, I don't enjoy it; the work becomes much less meaningful.

Passion, persistence and integrity — I interview every prospective employee and have them tell me what those words mean to them. Their definition and embodiment of those words get them a job at our company, and it becomes an unspoken contract: If they lose any of those values, I would rather they leave and find a place to rediscover them all.

Elon Musk has the right concept — only work here if you can love my vision — but his "my way or the highway" approach may not work for everyone. Instead, leaders should nurture the trust and autonomy needed to build a team that loves what they do.

Mario Ciabarra

Founder & CEO of Quantum Metric

Mario Ciabarra, founder and CEO of Quantum Metric, is a computer scientist and tech entrepreneur who’s passionate about pairing world-class teams with today’s most pressing enterprise-technology challenges.

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