The Steve Jobs Way

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strategy+business

issue 67 S UMMER 2012

The Steve Jobs Way
Leaders can learn a lot from the late Apple CEO, but not all of it should be emulated.

by JON KATZENb A CH

reprint 12201

Leaders can learn a lot from the late Apple CEO,
but not all of it should be emulated.
by Jon Katzenbach

S

teve Jobs’s business feats
were legendary long before
he died in October 2011.
Apple Inc., considered a niche player
for much of its history, is the most
valuable company in the world by
market capitalization as of this writing. Most business leaders would be thrilled to achieve Jobs’s level of
market success, but should they aspire to lead like him? Before doing so, they should dig into his management style. Jobs the leader was at once dynamic and controversial,
and his success relied heavily on the
genius of Jobs the innovator.
Many other prominent leaders
leave legacies that become clear only
with time; however, we can evaluate
Jobs’s leadership with tremendous
clarity already today. This is thanks
to Walter Isaacson’s masterful, eponymous biography of the entrepreneur (Simon & Schuster, 2011), a 600-page account that rarely feels
flabby or boring. Jobs pursued Isaacson, a former CEO of CNN and managing editor of Time, for five
years (the first of many examples of
Jobs’s persistence in the book), and
then gave him a free hand (a much
rarer occurrence), promising: “It’s
your book. I won’t even read it.”
The leader Isaacson portrays
could have illustrated the Great
Man theory popular in the mid19th century, with its heroic leaders whose decisions and sheer force of
will determined the world’s course.

Steve Jobs was certainly a willful
and driven leader, and the products
and services he directed his companies to develop and commercialize changed the way many of us live,
as well as the course of a diverse set
of industries, including computing,
publishing, movies, music, and mobile telephony.
At the same time, Jobs’s leadership style was complex. He was intensely focused when committed, confident enough to take risky leaps,
and charismatic enough to enlist legions of employees and customers in the relentless pursuit of his aspirations. He was also interpersonally immature well into his adult life:
impatient, stubborn, and hypercritical, if not downright cruel at times. Jobs may have been, as Isaacson
says, “the greatest business executive
of our era,” but he was a mercurial,
demanding, and tyrannical one. All
too often he was the antithesis of the
“servant leader” model popularized
in the 1990s (the giving, caring organizational mentor who in many ways contrasted with the hero model
of a century prior).
However, Jobs’s seemingly destructive behaviors sparked peak performance as much as they undermined it, depending on where and how he applied them. They also
helped shape the unique and powerful cultures Jobs seeded — twice at Apple, as well as at NeXT and at
Pixar. (And few would have predicted Pixar’s runaway success in movie animation. Certainly not the Walt

strategy+business issue 67

Leading Ideas

leading ideas
1

The Steve Jobs Way

Illustration by Jack Unruh

for such behavior is the loss of people who need more encouragement along the way. Such an approach
also undermines the emotional
commitment of B players, who in
most enterprises constitute more
than triple the organizational teaming capacity of A players. Then there was Jobs’s habit of
distorting reality to fit his purposes,
coupled with the impatience, criticism, and brusqueness that often accompanied it. On the one hand, the “Jobs version” could create a compelling vision of what might be. Witness the strong cultures that he

Jobs’s reality distortion could be extremely alienating, and it sapped his credibility, especially when he used
it to dismiss a promising idea or an
effort as “a piece of crap.”
If other leaders emulate these
traits — the good and the bad —
will they get...
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