Photo by Cpt. Madison M. Maylebe

Management By Walking Around

Elon Musk hates meetings and presentations. Or at least, he doesn’t find them as productive as getting out of his office and into his companies’ workspaces.

Musk, the chief executive of Tesla and SpaceX, spoke about his leadership style last month at The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council annual summit. “When I have spent too much time in a conference room, that’s generally when things have gone awry,” he said.

“When I go to spend time on the factory floor, or really using the cars, thinking about the rockets, that’s where things have gone better.”

Musk’s endorsement of getting out onto the shop floors reminded me of a 2013 article published in the Army’s Aviation Digest. “Why Platoon Leaders Should Be Stripped of their Desks….” (yes, the title has a four-dot ellipsis…) discussed the importance of getting out of the office as a junior officer.

When I first saw the title, I thought it was an exaggeration on the author’s part to emphasize the importance of getting out of the office. But no! The author, then-Lt. Col. Rod Hynes, actually recommended that commanders take their platoon leaders’ desks.

He argued that platoon leaders should abandon their desks — or have their desks abandoned for them — and get out with the soldiers to observe training, oversee maintenance, and “troop the line.” When I first read the article, I thought it was a silly and unrealistic concept. Stop giving platoon leaders so much desk work if you don’t want them to have desks!

The lure of the desk is real. Hynes wrote: “I don’t know what it is about desks and offices. They pull us in like light to a moth. We are instinctively drawn there each day as if it had a magical power to reenergize our core. There is a fallacy that situational awareness is gained by plugging in to the desk and if pulled away somehow we fall behind in the information era.”

Although I still don’t endorse taking away junior officers’ desks, hindsight and experience have made me realize how important the concept is. Throughout my career, I have always felt much more in-tune with my unit when I leave the four walls of my office.

By going where the work is happening, you get a real sense of the challenges your unit faces in a way that can’t be discovered by looking at data in spreadsheets or charts in a Power Point presentation.

Also, physical presence brings the added benefit of interacting with soldiers and showing them you care about their daily work. Leadership is as much about setting the organization’s vision as it is about influencing others to follow you to achieve success.

In Musk’s remarks, he included a military analogy to bring home this point.

“Think about war: Do you want the general in some ivory tower or on the front lines? The troops are going to fight a lot harder if they see the general on the front lines,” he said.

“Nobody bleeds with the prince in the palace. Get out there on the goddamn front line and show them that you care, and that you’re not just in some plush office somewhere.”

It’s hard to fault his logic.

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The views expressed are those of Brennan Randel and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or any government agency.

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