Elon Musk is known for his amazing mind, ferocious (some would say insane) work ethic, audacious goals, and wacky Twitter behavior. His eloquence? Not so much. Even the SpaceX and Tesla boss himself admits his greatest talent isn't words: 

But even if Musk isn't the best communicator, he sometimes manages to boil down incredibly powerful wisdom in his own unique, nerdy way. The results can be life-changing. Just ask HubSpot founder Dharmesh Shah

18 words that will change how you think about leadership 

On LinkedIn Shah shared an experience with Musk that completely transformed how he thinks about leadership. It happened at an event hosted by Sequoia Capital for founders, and helpfully for time-pressed bosses, the entire message is all of 18 words long. 

Here's the essence of the story via Shah: "I got a chance to chat with Elon Musk (one of my favorite entrepreneurs) over a nice, small dinner out in the woods. One of the highlights of my professional life. During the course of dinner, when asked about his advice on growing and scaling a business, here was Elon's answer: 'Every person in your company is a vector. Your progress is determined by the sum of all vectors.'" 

The less mathematically inclined might be scratching their heads trying to remember whatever they learned about vectors back in high school algebra. But fear not, even if you're terrible with numbers, you can put this principle to work. 

A vector, Shah explains, is nothing more complicated than a measurement that captures both the magnitude and the direction of something. It tells you not just how much progress a thing is making but in what direction it's making it. What do vectors have to do with managing people? 

Everyone on your team has both a magnitude of impact (how much they achieve, like how many lines of code they write or sales they close) and a direction of that impact (what feature they're working on or sector they're selling to, for instance). 

Mediocre leaders focus a lot on the magnitude of their people's contribution, i.e. how to level up the skill and effort of their team, so they get more done. Musk's quote reminds us that's only half the battle. 

Pulling hard is worthless if you're not pulling in the same direction. 

It's easy to understand that, on a personal level, effort is only half the picture. If you're sprinting flat out in the wrong direction you're getting no closer to your goal. That's why it's essential to define success before you start chasing it. But the importance of not just effort but also the direction of that effort can get lost when we're talking about teams. 

Imagine a group of three talented employees, all of whom are working flat out and producing impressive results. However, one employee is working on project A, the second on project B, and the third on a completely unrelated task. How effective is this team? 

Just like you can sum up vectors in algebra, you can sum up the efforts of these employees. What you'll find is that a lot of their effort is canceling each other out. Their individual performance is great. The sum is mediocre. 

It's not enough, in other words, to have everyone on your team performing well. To maximize the progress of your business, they also have to be aligned.

"The optimal answer," Shah writes, is to have "everyone is moving in the correct direction towards a unified goal. That's how you have maximum impact."  

How to make sure you're people are aligned

How do you make sure your whole team isn't just pulling hard, but that they're also all pulling in the same direction? Shah insists leaders need to think through and communicate not just team goals, but deeper alignments as well. In his words, they need to, 

  1. Align people with the organization's goals.

  2. Align individual teams (product, marketing, sales, service, etc.) with the organization's goals.

  3. Align the organization's goals with the needs of the customer.

Getting all these pieces working together to push your company in one consistent direction is the hallmark of great leadership, according to Musk. The best leaders don't just help their people do their best work, they also make sure none of that effort is wasted by making sure it all points towards the same goal. 

Want to learn more? Here's a 46 minute talk from Shah laying out how he puts Musk's wisdom to use in great detail: 


 
Published on: Jul 3, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.