Doesher Advisors Guide

August 21, 2012

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// Was Steve Jobs a Great — or Even a Good — Leader?

Earlier this year I read the biography Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson. I have to say it was one of the most challenging books I have ever read — not because of the length (although, in my opinion, it was too long, with lots of repetition), but because Jobs violated almost every leadership principle in which I believe. As I read, I felt like my brain was being stretched in ways it had never before experienced. I kept telling myself, "Hang in there, absorb, and seek to understand." For those of you who have not read the book, Isaacson was recruited by Jobs to write it, and much of the biography is based on interviews with and comments made by Jobs. My point is that this book seemed objective, and Jobs himself had a hand in it — so it is by no means a character assassination.

Besides the influence of Frank Moran and all the other great leaders at Plante Moran, whose principles have I based my view of a great leader on? The list would be long but would include Tom Peters, Jim Collins, Steve Samples, Patrick Lencione, Daniel Pink, Marcus Buckingham, Coach K, Bo Schembechler, Brady Hoke, and Tom Izzo. Obviously, I'm not the only one who thinks highly of these individuals and their ability; most of them receive thousands of dollars for every speech they make on leadership. You could also add Presidents Lincoln, Washington, and Mandela, plus Mother Teresa, to my list of great leaders and role models.

Not to be judgmental, but according to Isaacson, Jobs was a "jerk." (Isaacson didn't actually use that word; it's my interpretation of the behavior he reported that Jobs exhibited.) In fact, Jobs' team came up with a description for his behavior. They called it "Reality Distortion Field." Some members of the team would explain that the label was just a clever way to say that Jobs tended to lie, and to unfairly mistreat people. He would tell an associate who suggested something new that their idea was bad, and he would even belittle the individual in front of his colleagues. Then Jobs would come in the next day and propose the same idea, as if it were his own. Another example is that although Jobs said he had wonderful adoptive parents, he was known to treat them disrespectfully. The example I find most troubling, however, is that before Apple officially became a company, Jobs took advantage of the actual inventor of the Apple — his partner, Steve Wozniak.

All that being said, Jobs built and rebuilt the most valuable company in the world today. The Apple market capitalization (based on current values) is approximately $500 billion. Compare that with the numbers for the following companies: Microsoft, $250 billion; Exxon Mobil, $400 billion; IBM, $230 billion; Wal-Mart, $230 billion; and GE, $200 billion.

I decided to run Apple and Steve Jobs through the three elements Daniel Pink describes in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

The first element is purpose, which is defined as a desire to be involved in a cause larger than oneself. Can you imagine working at Apple on the teams that developed the Mac, iPhone, iPod, iTunes, and iPad? Isaacson interviewed associates from these teams. Many of them said something like, "Despite how Steve treated me, I would do it all over again."

The second element is mastery, which is defined as the desire to get better and better at something that matters. Jobs exemplified this trait with his obsession for the perfect device (defined by the customer, by the way, not the techies).

The final element is autonomy, which involves behaving with a full sense of volition and choice. This one is a mixed bag. If you had the courage to stand up to Jobs, like the associate who ignored Jobs when he ordered him not to use a certain supplier, you would be demonstrating your autonomy. This particular associate was worried about the ability of Jobs' chosen vendor to deliver on time, so he secretly worked with another vendor. Sure enough, in the end, Jobs' vendor failed and the alternate was used. At first, Jobs demeaned the associate for what he did — but eventually, he praised him for his initiative.

I am going to leave it up to you to decide whether Steve Jobs was a great leader. Whether he was or he wasn't, he certainly built a great company — although the jury is still out on that, too. For example, in his book Built to Last, author Jim Collins determined that an organization had to be more than 100 years old to be included in his study. Based on that criterion, Apple has a ways to go.

Maybe the real question should be: Are you building an organization that's valuable today, or are you building a valuable organization that will last forever?

Seek. Climb. Lead.


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