Recently, Elon Musk made headlines -- which, in and of itself, isn't noteworthy. Musk makes headlines often, usually with a dash of sensationalism, and mostly in ways that peak then quickly fade. Yet his recent emailed mandate to Tesla employees, leaked to the public earlier this summer, are worthy of greater attention -- just not for the reasons you might expect.

The Headline and the Possible Storylines

The overarching headline of that moment went like this: Musk emailed his employees declaring that henceforth, remote workers, whose numbers dramatically rose during the Covid pandemic, could no longer work virtually. Or more precisely, that they had to spend a minimum of 40 hours per week in the physical headquarters office or, as he bluntly puts it, "depart Tesla." That first email caused a brief firestorm internally. In response, Musk doubled down. "If you don't show up," he wrote in a follow-up email, "we will assume you have resigned."

From this, several obvious storylines could be chosen. First, and most obvious, Musk likes being in charge and pointing out that he is. Admittedly, it's not a very interesting takeaway. A convenient second storyline is that Musk doesn't follow the same news the rest of us do. Specifically, the evidence is both consistent and overwhelming that remote work, at the very least in hybrid form, is here to stay. Declaring it dead, full stop, seems less bold and more unaware. A third option is this: To chose to step back from the default storylines and learn a broader lesson in employee engagement, and how to build a productive team and culture.

Two Different Strategies: Fence and Watering Hole

What Musk's emails represent is what I call a fence strategy. The term derives from two very different approaches that ranchers in Australia choose between to manage their cattle herd.

As its name suggests, the fence strategy is to build an enormous fence around the ranch (or station, as they are called down under) to contain the cattle, the chief asset of any ranching business -- much as people are the chief asset of most other businesses.

In this artificial strategy, troubles abound. Australian cattle stations are enormous. The land is arid or dry, and the weather is volatile and unpredictable. To have enough grazing area, you'd need to fence in quite a lot of territory. That's expensive, not just in the start-up costs but in maintenance, too. Fences fall down, get pushed over, and wear out. Maintaining them is akin to the old story about painting the Golden Gate Bridge: As soon as you finish, you have to start over. Translation: The fence is a lot of never-ending work and cost. And even within the fence, you still have to round up the cattle within. It's why many ranchers use the watering hole strategy instead.

The watering hole approach is simple: Instead of relying strictly on boundaries, you offer or create the thing that those you are trying to manage want most. Then those cows, or people, begin to work with you instead of against you. In Australian ranching, water is king. Some ranchers have figured out that if you build a reliable watering hole, the cattle actually contain themselves, no fence needed. Are there still challenges? Of course. Do some ranchers do a combination of each? They do. But on the whole, the watering hole strategy proves more effective and breeds greater cooperation than the fence.

The Broader Lesson of the Future of Work, and of Leadership

That's really the thing to take note of in this particular Musk story: The environmental reality Musk appears to be choosing to ignore. The Great Resignation/Reshuffle/Reordering isn't fading. Every month, employees in material numbers are not only choosing to leave their jobs (itself worthy of note), but they also report doing so as a result of consciously taking command of their work, their future, their life balance, and their potential for impact. Sure, most of us need jobs. But to assume that employers and leaders retain the only vote in the collaboration between employer and employee simply does not line up with the facts.

Employees are increasingly conscious of their watering holes. They fear less the threat of the fence than perhaps they once did. Those organizations that see this and are working towards building cultures that honor partnership and balance, are the ones thriving in these uncertain times. The bolder and more truthful declaration is this: We cannot go backwards to a time when hierarchy ruled work in every sense.

Which begs the question: How do leaders build something new, something better, something collaborative -- that strengthens their ability to succeed as the environment remains uncertain? No matter the specifics of the answer, it likely does not begin with a proclamation from the past.