We keep hearing that we need more “hands-on” leaders. Well, what does that mean?
I realized I didn’t really know. I asked around. Here’s what I got.
Imagine a leader loved by a traditional executive leadership team. He is super confident, dresses, and presents well. Our guy has all the answers his leaders need at his fingertips. He turns up for all escalation meetings and runs endless team status meetings. This leader is a “numbers” guy (whatever that means!). He keeps everyone on their toes.
I wasn’t convinced. This seems to fit into a profile for an escalation manager. Maybe even an operations manager. But it didn’t fit this super “hands-on” leader, we keep hearing about. We seem to be talking about a taskmaster with exceptional follow-up capabilities at best.
So I changed tack and asked people who they considered a “Hands-on” leader. Who did they think was best in the business?
Elon Musk was a favorite. People loved his ability to build hard things at scale. And then I came across this beautiful interview of Musk. It has a lot of insights into his leadership brand. And this post was born.
The interview has an industry practitioner asking questions. He’s not a reporter or an executive leader. I suspect this is one reason the interview throws up many hidden factors making a top-notch “hands-on” leader.
Hands-on leaders are comfortable being vulnerable. Genius hesitates, loves critique, admits mistakes.
The interviewer starts with an “uncomfortable” question. He points out that his Tesla had paint issues and gaps. His friends’ car delivered a month later was pristine. What happened?
Elon doesn’t turn defensive. He acknowledges the challenges. He shares out examples of what went wrong and had to be fixed. For instance, ramping up the line reduced the wait times, resulting in the paint not drying adequately. He talks about how transforming an assembly line to maturity is very hard.
This is not overly confident, fast-talking. This is not the “everything is under my control” leadership talk we are used to. Professor Rovelli declares that “genius hesitates.” And through the interview, you see Musk pause, think and reply. They are considered answers. You see an intelligent mind ticking over. It understands the immensity of the problems and realizes things will evolve over time. There’s no over-the-top talking here.
Revolutions happen over time and incremental steps.
The interviewer appreciates Tesla’s seat as being the best in the business. Musk chuckles, remembering the Model S’s early seats. Nicknamed “stone toadstools,” he says they were the worst seats in business and talks about how they undertook the long journey to get to where they are.
This humility – admitting things are in progress actually shows his understanding of things. He understands challenges but is not helpless.
When talking about his preference to convert to a single cast, he acknowledges that it will take time. There’s no magic bullet here.
The ability to see the big milestone and have the patience to keep chipping makes such leaders unique. In Musk’s case, his roadmap was plotted over 15 years ago. Here is his master-plan from 2006. It’s impressive how he has got the whole plan executed to perfection. Everything is thought through – from the roadster all the way to model Y.
And yes, his quirky sense of humor is the stuff of legend. Perhaps that keeps the teams together in a collegial environment.
I think this is the most “outstanding” quality of a “Hands-on” leader. They are comfortable owning outcomes for areas they don’t control. They can do this because they understand the big picture intimately.
When the interviewer praises Tesla’s autonomous driving but has strong views on the road markings, Musk shares an exciting counterpoint. His argument is that even if there were false markings and a UFO lands in the center of the road, the car should be smart enough to not crash. As he says, the prime directive is no crash/ no injury to people.
Hands-on leaders make things as simple as possible and no more.
The traditional micro-manager asks for dashboards and report simplicity beyond all things. Project completion on time is their goal.
“Hands-on” leaders understand complexity gets uncovered over time. But it may take a lot longer than expected. While Musk has executed his 2006 roadmap to a nicety, it’s taken a lot longer. And he does not consider this a miss because he appreciates how complexity arises in systems.
He calls out a beautiful point “Organisational errors manifest in a product. People give you the right answers to the wrong questions. The answers are true individually but not collectively.”
When many people and parts come together, we run into a new problem. Each piece may have the requisite quality, but the end-end product and team integration can suck.
Musk appreciates the inherent complexities and aims for simplicity in the product, but not in the report dashboards. Which takes us to the next section.
They understand Lessons “transfer” across domains
Understanding the big picture allows “hands-on” leaders to apply concepts across areas.
For instance, Musk talks about the need to reduce the number of casts. And then Musk applies a similar logic to the number of lines of code as well. Two points for deleting a line of code and 1 point for adding a line of code explain his love for simplicity.
This ability to transfer lessons across domains practically is what sets these exceptional “hands-on” leaders apart.
Hands-on leaders have a childlike curiosity about the topic.
This is my favorite of the lot. Hands-on leaders love specific knowledge. It’s almost a hobby for them.
You can find his passion coming through when he explains why Carbon Fiber has some challenges as a structural element.
You also see this in his appreciation of other engineering marvels. He explains the precision of lego bricks to explain this further.
And the humor shines through too. Check out Musk’s Twitter handle(@elonmusk)!
His focus is on understanding, not showing off. Elon uses a lot of analogies and asks pointed questions to understand things better. There’s no ulterior motive.
This ability to retain a childlike wonder about the world makes “hands-on” leaders powerful.
Care about products – optimistic about long term but very risk-averse
Typically we see leaders delivering to requirements. Musk has obviously grandiose plans. But he wants to do more testing before releasing his near-perfect autonomous driving package. He is not ok releasing it with 99.99% confidence. It may make some people complacent and result in tragedy.
This immense care for product and product integrity makes him uncomfortable parachuting B school management leaders into leadership positions. And he feels negatively for the same reason about Short-sellers.
And that I think is probably the best way to define a hands-on leader. She loves building her product. And she is willing to give endlessly of her ingenuity, patience, and time to realize her dream.
If we end with this definition, I’d believe we certainly need to celebrate these “hands-on” leaders, right?