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Steve Jobs and the Great Man Theory of Leadership

Bill Taylor’s recent post on Steve Jobs and leadership, “Decoding Steve Jobs: Trust the Art, Not the Artist,” is a must read for emerging leaders or those who aspire to lead.  Taylor discusses how Jobs clings to the Great Man Theory of leadership which works well for him as an unusual skilled leader creatively, but fails miserably for others who try to implement it.

From the blog:

“So In terms of the impact his products have had on the world, Steve Jobs represents the face of business at its best. And yet, in terms of his approach to leadership, Jobs represents the face of business — well, if not at its worst, then certainly not as something worth emulating. It’s not so much the secrecy about his liver transplant or the controversies over backdated stock options. Those are matters of corporate governance and investor relations, which, while important, aren’t all that urgent. To me, the issue is more Jobs’s approach to leadership itself — which, despite the compelling and cutting-edge quality of his products, is strangely unappetizing and often downright retro.”

The author further generalizes:

“. . . The best leaders I know don’t want the job of thinking for everybody else. They understand that if they can tap the hidden genius inside the organization, and the collective genius outside the organization, they will create ideas that will be much more powerful than what even the smartest individual leader could ever come up with on his or her own . . . “

I couldn’t agree more.  While there are a few very successful leaders who can pull off the smartest guy in the room thing [count ‘em on one hand kinda numbers], most great leaders don’t and can’t lead this way.  Replicating Jobs’ tirades, my-rules-are-the-only-rules attitude and overall hubris would destroy most leaders and would doom almost any person trying to establish a leadership role to a crash-and-burn type failure.

Don’t get me wrong.  None of this is meant to take anything away from Jobs as a leader himself – he’s proven to be a successful leader on many levels.  It’s merely to point out that trying to copy his leadership techniques will likely end in failure.  Your odds are much better when you use the capabilities of those around you and share the credit wisely.  Humility is an incredible leadership tool and is very easy to use if you keep your ego from getting in the way. 

Read the article.  Its author does a much better job telling this story.

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 June 25th, 2009  
 Will  
 Leadership  
   
 7 Comments

7 Responses to Steve Jobs and the Great Man Theory of Leadership

  1. Will,

    I won’t disagree with you about Steve Jobs and his leadership methods. I think that both you and Bill completely miss the point of his leadership style, though.

    What would you prefer, the GM style of leadership? We all share the credit, but no one gets any blame?

    How about Microsoft’s style of leadership? Oh, wait, that’s an arrogant, aggressive culture as well … too bad they produce crappy products, to boot.

    Oh, humility — great idea. No one gets ANY credit, and the executives and salesmen wheel the dustbins of money out the back door. Back to your cubicle, sheeple!

    I think any discussion of Steve Jobs should focus on what he doesn’t do. He doesn’t spread himself out too far. He doesn’t make grandiose promises and then fail to deliver on them. He doesn’t take a “one-size-fits-all” approach to leadership, he figures out what motivates particular people and he hits them hard with it. He doesn’t put people in roles that they’re ill-suited for. All of those things directly contradict Bill’s article, which was written with the assumption that leaders in more traditional corporate hierarchies where those rules don’t apply might try to adopt the things that Jobs gets away with.

    The top things you can learn from Steve Jobs: Do what works, and don’t set yourself up for failure.

    The criticisms of Jobs, and indeed, Apple, always read oddly to me. Criticisms of secrecy usually mention the security badges and closed-circuit cameras used at Apple’s campuses… but what corporate HQ *doesn’t* have those security features? Criticisms of product placement or marketing strategies usually boil down to, “I want something, and they haven’t made it!” Criticisms of their pricing policy usually boil down to, “They’re making too much money!” — when is that a bad thing? We live in a capitalist society, after all! I’m really baffled by Apple’s consistently poor treatment by the press. Success breeds resentment, I suppose.

    To me, the number one sign of a poor leader is that they take tips on leadership from weblogs and pundits.

  2. Will,

    I won’t disagree with you about Steve Jobs and his leadership methods. I think that both you and Bill completely miss the point of his leadership style, though.

    What would you prefer, the GM style of leadership? We all share the credit, but no one gets any blame?

    How about Microsoft’s style of leadership? Oh, wait, that’s an arrogant, aggressive culture as well … too bad they produce crappy products, to boot.

    Oh, humility — great idea. No one gets ANY credit, and the executives and salesmen wheel the dustbins of money out the back door. Back to your cubicle, sheeple!

    I think any discussion of Steve Jobs should focus on what he doesn’t do. He doesn’t spread himself out too far. He doesn’t make grandiose promises and then fail to deliver on them. He doesn’t take a “one-size-fits-all” approach to leadership, he figures out what motivates particular people and he hits them hard with it. He doesn’t put people in roles that they’re ill-suited for. All of those things directly contradict Bill’s article, which was written with the assumption that leaders in more traditional corporate hierarchies where those rules don’t apply might try to adopt the things that Jobs gets away with.

    The top things you can learn from Steve Jobs: Do what works, and don’t set yourself up for failure.

    The criticisms of Jobs, and indeed, Apple, always read oddly to me. Criticisms of secrecy usually mention the security badges and closed-circuit cameras used at Apple’s campuses… but what corporate HQ *doesn’t* have those security features? Criticisms of product placement or marketing strategies usually boil down to, “I want something, and they haven’t made it!” Criticisms of their pricing policy usually boil down to, “They’re making too much money!” — when is that a bad thing? We live in a capitalist society, after all! I’m really baffled by Apple’s consistently poor treatment by the press. Success breeds resentment, I suppose.

    To me, the number one sign of a poor leader is that they take tips on leadership from weblogs and pundits.

  3. Pingback: Making A Difference - Leaving Your Mark on the World | Coaching Leaders

  4. Karl,

    Good points all. The problem with being critical of a successful person, no matter what their vocation, is that the criticism often wreaks of sour grapes or, at least, a bone being picked. I am attempting not to fall into either of these camps. My point in this post is less about critiquing the leadership successes of Steve Jobs than it is to point out just how difficult they are to replicate.

    All too often, leaders and managers coming into their own select someone to emulate. Many aim high and pick very public figures when, in fact, they are the last people that should be learned from. Often, and I’d say this is exactly the case with Jobs, the successful leader has qualities which are almost impossible to quantify and don’t fall within any visible analysis of their style. Basically, they can’t be learned because they are not well understood. In that case, replicating the remainder of the style only creates failure.

    BTW, I’m sure you know more about this than I, but from what I can tell, Jobs *is* all about “one-size-fits-all” leadership. It’s his size or the highway, so to speak. I have two acquaintances who both worked directly for Jobs who have made this abundantly clear to me with examples. Both were hired by Jobs, then subsequently put in a box to do his bidding. That’s just the way it works there – it’s Steve’s show. It certainly seems to work well for Apple, it’s hard to duplicate that elsewhere without Mr. Jobs’ abundant talent, though.

  5. Karl,

    Good points all. The problem with being critical of a successful person, no matter what their vocation, is that the criticism often wreaks of sour grapes or, at least, a bone being picked. I am attempting not to fall into either of these camps. My point in this post is less about critiquing the leadership successes of Steve Jobs than it is to point out just how difficult they are to replicate.

    All too often, leaders and managers coming into their own select someone to emulate. Many aim high and pick very public figures when, in fact, they are the last people that should be learned from. Often, and I’d say this is exactly the case with Jobs, the successful leader has qualities which are almost impossible to quantify and don’t fall within any visible analysis of their style. Basically, they can’t be learned because they are not well understood. In that case, replicating the remainder of the style only creates failure.

    BTW, I’m sure you know more about this than I, but from what I can tell, Jobs *is* all about “one-size-fits-all” leadership. It’s his size or the highway, so to speak. I have two acquaintances who both worked directly for Jobs who have made this abundantly clear to me with examples. Both were hired by Jobs, then subsequently put in a box to do his bidding. That’s just the way it works there – it’s Steve’s show. It certainly seems to work well for Apple, it’s hard to duplicate that elsewhere without Mr. Jobs’ abundant talent, though.

  6. I know this is an post, but I just want to say how great Apple is as a company because they're so successful with their iPod niche products.

  7. Steve Jobs is a great leader:)

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