By now, many of us have read, watched, and listened to many accounts of Steve Jobs’ many contributions can achievements. There is a passion from consumers about Apple and Steve Jobs that is rare in the corporate world. Not long ago, I walked past an Apple store in Soho and saw hundreds of Post-It notes and flowers from so many thanking Steve Jobs. As his biographer Walter Isaacson and others have pointed out, however, Steve Jobs was far from perfect. I’d like to comment in particular on his leadership and management style. It is well-known that Steve Jobs could be arrogant, dictatorial, and mean-spirited. Yet he was a great leader. So does this invalidate the claims of some management writers and thought leaders today that effective business leaders today need to be nice, kind, humble (Level 5 leadership), and practice “servant leadership?” Does this mean that executive leaders should now not worry about being ruthless, imperial and aloof?
Not at all. I think this apparent contradiction can be explained by two sets of factors. One, we have to recognize that leadership style is situational. A style that might work under some circumstances might not work in others. Of course this concept has been around for years, but I am still surprised at the claims being made about “universal” leadership characteristics and behavior. Those of you who have worked overseas and led cross-functional global teams will surely recognize that your leadership needs to be adapted to specific cultures. I believe that Mr. Jobs’ leadership style (not to mention his genius in design) was a key ingredient in Apple’s success; had he used a different style, he might not have achieved the same spectacular results at Apple.
Two, despite the observations of some about Mr. Jobs’ arrogant style, I believe that he had at least three qualities that great executive leaders have: a clear vision, a passion for the company and its people, and an ability to inspire trust. This is what I would consider his leadership character. In fact, Mr. Jobs not only had a vision, he made sure that everyone in the company bought into that vision, and this created a “higher purpose” for the company that really excited Apple employees. Of course, his passion for the company and its products is legendary. And employees trusted Mr. Jobs – not because he founded the company but because he showed time and again his competence in many areas, especially product design and marketing. And because employees saw – through his behavior – that Mr. Jobs was not driven by his own ego or by some self-interested needs (like the outrageous pay packages of some executives), they trusted him. So if Mr. Jobs was at times arrogant, even nasty, employees viewed these behaviors in the context of these underlying qualities.
I think the lessons for executives today are clear. Leadership style is situational – your behavior can and should vary depending on circumstances. What is important to consider is the character of your leadership. Do you have a clear vision for your team or your company? Do your team members believe in that vision, and are they excited enough to become part of the journey towards achieving that vision? And do they trust you to do what is ultimately best for the company, the stakeholders, the customers, and employees – not what’s best for you?