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The Real Lessons from Steve Jobs’ Career

Like other visionary pioneers Steve Jobs also had his limitations – and how he led Apple employees – was surely one of them.

Like other visionary pioneers Steve Jobs also had his limitations – and how he led Apple employees – was surely one of them. His legendary impatience, relentless quest for perfection, domineering presence, and obsessive need to control (he had over 100 direct reports) fostered as much fear within the Apple culture as it did reverence and respect for his genius. Often described as smug, willful, brazen, demeaning, volatile, vindictive and manipulative, he lead the company in a manner far afield from the collaborative norm expected of CEOs running public companies. Reportedly, employees working at Cupertino, CA headquarters even avoided getting into elevators with him lest they be fired by the time the ride ended. And Apple colleagues have described his assessment of employees as the “hero or shithead roller coaster” and where anyone was on that roller coaster could shift in a nanosecond.

The binary perception of Steve Jobs’s technological brilliance on the one hand, and his stark failing as a manager of people on the other persisted outside of Apple as well. While acknowledging his transformational accomplishments, a senior Google executive recently described him to me as a “complete jerk.” Jobs’s tantrums, maniacal pressure to realize his visions, and evangelistic oratory could embolden others’ best efforts but there were people costs within the culture as well. However, the human resources dimension of leadership was never a focus for Jobs — and like his brilliant competitor, Bill Gates, he really didn’t care about it. As we look back on Jobs’s leadership over the years, there is much to glean from his example – points that CEOs should emulate and traits that should be avoided as all costs.

When Gates was still CEO of Microsoft, I received a call from his head of leadership development who offered me the opportunity to work with Gates’s top “high potential” employees. Given other client commitments, I began to decline the engagement when she said, “We’ll give you whatever you want – at least think about it over night and call me back.”

Longer consideration helped me realize there was one thing I wanted – and wanted big time given that my life’s work centered on the study of top business leaders’ behavior. I called her back and said, “I’d have to start with Bill.” After an audible gasp she said, “I’m not sure we can deliver on that condition, but I’ll at least run it up the flag pole.”

Gates’s two word response was, “Not interested.”

The juggernaut success stories of Microsoft and Apple surely confirm the fact that there are all kinds of leaders including “jerks” like Gates and Jobs. But unless your company is being lead by a jerk on a par with the potential of Gates or Jobs, it’s a mistake to dismiss the serious consideration of how leaders lead and the implications of this for employee contentment and productivity.

From a behavioral “how” perspective, what did Steve Jobs get right as a leader? And, where was he the most wrong? We can consider these questions through the lens of three leadership types – Remarkable, Perilous, and Toxic. Rather than rigidly assigning one type per leader, I believe they move along a continuum from remarkable to toxic behavior.

Remarkable leaders are defined as the most fully evolved of these three types because they rate highly on four leadership criteria:

  1. total brain leadership (TBL)
  2. emotional intelligence (EQ)
  3. productive narcissism
  4. core leadership competencies (strategic thinking, driving results, managing people and executive credibility)

Perilous leaders can compare favorably to Remarkables, however, their underlying insecurity and chronic dissatisfaction with work – what I refer to as their sense of “unrequited work,” produces erratic and confusing leadership behavior. Their negative and inconsistent behavior can cascade over their employees like sleet.

Toxic leaders are either so driven by getting their own needs met, or flawed given serious psychological issues – such as bipolar illness – that they are ill-equipped to lead effectively.

Based on these criteria, explained below, I would assess Steve Jobs as having moved along the behavioral continuum between Remarkable and Perilous with folklore level instances of insulting and demoralizing Toxic behavior. Given contextual factors and his restless state of mind, his leadership was compromised further by behavior that could vary significantly and change almost instantaneously. Such behavior would not be tolerated in most public companies, however, given Job’s rare brilliance and the company’s global success, my guess is his employees and other key stake holders – including board members – either just accepted it and/or became inured to even his worst leadership behavior.

The criterion of Total Brain Leadership–is the ability to merge left brain intellectual horsepower with right brain-based interpersonal capabilities. Jobs receives a mixed rating due to his innate strengths but significant interpersonal limitations.

The second criterion, emotional intelligence, is the awareness of both one’s own and others’ emotions and the ability to channel this emotional awareness to help achieve objectives. Jobs does not get high marks here. While he may have possessed some degree of self-awareness, he did not care about his negative effects on others. Attuned primarily to getting his objectives met, he had no interest in or empathy for the concerns, issues or aspirations of his employees. And finally, his relationships were primarily transactional with employees being expected to deliver exactly what he wanted and in the timeframes he set.

The third criteria is what Harvard psychiatrist, Michael Maccoby refers to as “productive narcissism,” i.e., significant confidence in one’s capabilities and the drive to channel them in the service of the organization versus pursuing one’s selfish needs for ego gratification. If we accept that Jobs’s over-arching motivation was to achieve his technological visions and in the course of doing so change the world, we can give him high marks for productive narcissism.

Jobs gets a mixed rating on the forth criteria of critical leadership competencies. He’s a resounding YES on strategic thinking and driving results – even though we can raise serious questions about how he went about achieving results in Apple. Because of this, he’d have to get a failing grade on managing people. And while he could be a mesmerizing communicator, his behavioral inconsistency pulls down his rating on executive credibility.

So, from the perspective of the how dimension of leadership, to follow are the takeaways from Steve Jobs’s career – and what other leaders should practice for success:

  • Relentlessly pursue bold ideas – Organizations must have the patience, courage, and foresight to encourage, provide resources, and remove barriers for their “wild ducks” to pursue and realize break-out ideas.
  • The customer rules – Organizations need to identify and accelerate the careers of high potential employees who are attuned to the marketplace in ways that drive products and/or services intended to always surprise and delight the customer.
  • Ego serves the organization – Leaders can have big egos, but their efforts are fundamentally channeled in the service of making organizations successful.
  • Don’t confuse activity with results – Successful leaders leverage competitive drive to maintain traction/deliver distinctive excellence. They are not distracted from achieving the organization’s strategy and primary objectives.
  • The 3 Rs – Strong leaders ensure that the right people are in the right jobs and that the right conditions have been created for them to succeed.
  • Truth-telling – Don’t tolerate mediocre ideas, and be willing to take decisive action when people are not cutting it in their assigned roles.
  • Inspirational communication – Provide frequent and intensely motivational communication about compelling objectives, and the importance of speed to market.

Avoid the following pitfalls:

  • Prizing boldness to a fault – Don’t push ideas at the expense of forming and maintaining relationships with key stakeholders; inducing unnecessary political problems both within and outside the organization.
  • Misreading the customer – Customers may or may not be ready for the next “shiny object.” Objectively gauging customer readiness is key in the pacing and release of technological advances.
  • When ego doesn’t serve the organization – Acting like the 800-pound dominant gorilla and/or always needing to be the smartest kid in the room can have intensely de-motivating and or dis-empowering effects on others.
  • Excessive drive for results – People will feel trampled, unnecessarily stressed, pushed beyond what is reasonable, neglected, or otherwise de-humanized in the name of achieving results.
  • The 1 R – Getting the people right, but failing to assimilate them well or supporting them fully, expecting them to solve organization obstacles that really require senior management intervention, and failing to mentor employees won’t build talent bench strength within the organization.
  • Destructive truth telling – Excessive negative feedback that gets personal, and also the absence of “psychological paychecks” that recognize and affirm stellar efforts and results does nothing to drive results.
  • Un-inspirational communication – Messages that are diminished by a leader’s hyperbole, grand-standing, and/or failure to help employees see their place in the journey leaves workers uninspired and lost.

In the final months before he died, Jobs reportedly met with his key business unit leaders and gave each one of them the innovation playbook intended to guide their efforts through the next decade. On the surface this may quell questions about Apple maintaining its innovation edge. However, the complexity and unpredictability of product execution and marketplace forces could not have been completely anticipated by Jobs.

Further, the Apple culture challenges of adjusting to his death, as well as of identifying its next set of behavioral norms cannot be underestimated. These challenges will require a Total Brain Leader who is self aware and attuned to the emotional tenor of the organization. He must also keep his own ego in check as he remains riveted on both the strategic and human resources needs of the organization.

All eyes will be on Jobs’s successor, Tim Cook. Is this talented operations executive the right CEO for the current time? Impossible to assess this early. But he may surprise.


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