anthill illustration by Andrew Baker
© Andrew Baker

It is protocol at the Financial Times to submit edited versions of opinion articles to a senior journalist for final scrutiny. Once, a colleague on deadline sent a notoriously pernickety editor an op-ed for approval. Within minutes, he called her back: “There’s a problem with the final full stop,” he said. “It’s in italics.”

You could call this attention to detail, or pedantry, or, worse, micromanaging, a term that has become synonymous with the worst style of leadership.

Micromanagers are supposedly the opposite of delegators. Micromanagers are attacked for obsessing over fine detail, stifling their subordinates’ initiative and lacking strategic nous. Delegators are applauded for appointing gifted deputies, “empowering” front-line team members and stepping back to concentrate on the wider vision.

While it may no longer be his biggest problem, Elon Musk has been criticised for micromanaging Tesla, after the electric carmaker he heads struggled to stick to forecasts and burnt through cash and senior executives. Some investors have urged him to appoint a chief operating officer, rather than trying to solve Tesla’s problems single-handed by working 120-hour weeks. One former executive told Business Insider, the US news website, that when something goes wrong, “Elon fires some engineer that made some irrelevant, bad decision and Elon sleeps on the factory floor until the problem is fixed, or whatever. But it doesn’t actually fix the root problem, which is terrible management.”

Coincidentally, around the same time as Musk was earning opprobrium for his micromanaging, another entrepreneur, Jack Ma, was winning plaudits for being a great delegator. Ma announced last month he would step down as chairman of Alibaba, the Chinese internet group, next year, handing the role to the chief executive Daniel Zhang. Ma was already known for devolving a lot of autonomy to Alibaba’s business units and for appointing “a lot of generals”, in the words of Duncan Clark, a consultant and author of Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built.

There are good reasons why Ma is more hands-off at Alibaba and Musk more hands-on at Tesla and SpaceX, his rocket venture. Ma lacks Musk’s technical knowledge. It would be hard for him to step in and fix a coding problem. Musk possesses both the total commitment of the start-up founder and the skills to repair things that go wrong.

In his 2015 biography of Musk, Ashlee Vance identified how in some situations the same combination that is now under fire at Tesla was an asset to SpaceX. A SpaceX colleague pointed out how Musk would sometimes take on a flagging project himself on top of his CEO duties, dismissing the project leader. “What’s crazy is that Elon actually does it,” this colleague said. “Every time he’s fired someone and taken their job, he’s delivered on whatever the project was.”

Similarly, we rarely questioned my pedantic colleague’s sharp-eyed second-guessing of subeditors because we knew that he had proved himself as an editor.

The competence of your manager is one important factor in deciding how you view his or her intervention in your project, according to Roshni Raveendhran, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

After studying what she describes as “detail-oriented controlling behaviours”, she suggests micromanagement is not a leadership style, but a phenomenon that depends in part on the context in which it occurs. While micromanaging generally reflected badly on the leader, she and her fellow researchers found people were less likely to take a negative view of leaders who knew what they were doing. Similarly, a subordinate who was new to the job, or less competent, was more likely to accept, or even welcome, the leader’s hands-on guidance.

That micromanaging and delegating are on the same spectrum is not so surprising. Even Ma, the arch-delegator, is capable of getting close to the problem when required, particularly if he feels that Alibaba is neglecting customers. “He’s like a hawk,” says Duncan Clark. “He swoops down on things that might violate trust.” Similarly, it is hard to say that Musk, whose goals include the colonisation of Mars, lacks a long-range vision.

The question is one of degree. When she gave her MBA student volunteers the role of detail-oriented leader in her experiments, Prof Raveendhran found they often assumed that micromanaging was what leaders were supposed to do; but when they played the put-upon subordinate they hated taking close instruction.

Neither extreme is ideal. “I’m hating work at the moment: the boss is always on top of us,” we might say about a micromanager. But then when a problem spirals out of control, critics wonder why a strategic leader was not “on top of the problem”. Achieving that balance between seeing the big picture and worrying about the detail is hard, but it is the essence of good leadership. Full stop.

Andrew Hill is the FT’s management editor

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