Not Another Steve Jobs — Musings on Leadership Styles

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Seldom has the technology world been associated with glamor until Jobs came. With him on the center stage, it was swell to be a geek, cool to dress up as if one’s wardrobe was made up of only blacks and blues.

With his ability to awe and inspire generations of people, Steve Jobs definitely belongs to the League-of-Unforgettables.

Not surprisingly, I often hear corporate executives talk about their dream to be like Steve Jobs, or to be the next Steve Jobs, or some such variant.

That set me thinking.

To be like Steve Jobs is easy to proclaim and to wish for. Logical question would be what aspect of Jobs? Is it his penmanship, his oratory skills, his astute marketing side that knew consumers even better than consumers themselves, or his intense mood swings that resulted in spats with those who had to work with him?

Attributes that make Jobs worthy of both adulation and emulation are also the toughest to possess because they demand discipline and courage from those who aspire to be the next marketing or technology whiz.

In most corporate circles, to even imagine let alone take the kind of risks that Jobs took is unfathomable. Little wonder that a decade steeped in talks about innovation has leapfrogged us by, and we are still unable to look beyond companies such as Apple, Amazon or Google for market disruption.

One might argue that large traditional enterprises will have to make substantial changes at an organizational, technological or process level to innovate as the likes of Apple do.

And my contention would be that with their strong incumbents’ positions and substantial financial clout, they can very well metamorphose into enterprises that have innovation in their DNA.

So why don’t we see more executives willing to risk their neck on the line to launch products that would make customers clamor for more just like they did every time Jobs launched an “iProduct”.

And therein lies the difference between wishful thinking and audaciously ploughing ahead to create a new reality — something that Jobs excelled at.

The reason is simple — most executives are basically managers answerable to management, board or shareholders. Jobs on the other hand epitomized the free-spirited, risk-taking entrepreneur willing to act according to his convictions.

Apple KeyNotes were sensational because Jobs brought a hitherto unseen passion and spontaneity to the events. How did he do it? Spending weeks to refine his ideas first on paper before transferring them onto software, Jobs was just as hands-on with his presentations as he was envisioning new products.

Many executives rely on an army of PowerPoint experts to painstakingly build presentations most audience would be eager to give a miss. Again the reason is not hard to see: Even with the finest looking presentations, it’s not easy to convey the conviction and passion that only comes when you own not just the content but also the intent behind a presentation. There is only so much ardor that one can communicate on ideas that are mostly “me-too’s”

Then there was the other side of Jobs — demanding, manipulative, and often downright contemptuous of those around him. Tales abound of colleagues being driven to excellence, before they were driven to utter despair. Sure he believed in as some may say “tough love”. And therein, lies the dichotomy facing ambitious executives who want to be like Jobs.

Most of us would like to emulate the more appealing facets of his personality. That is not surprising at all. But what is surprising nay alarming is the trend of those-in-power who go on to choose his most unfavorable trait — bullying at work. And why do they do so? It’s the easiest, among Jobs’ characteristics, to imitate. Being disrespectful to one’s coworkers requires no extra effort. Instead it helps to deflect attention from such executives’ own shortcomings, taking the burden off them to make any efforts to improve themselves.

The writing on the wall is clear — much as we want we can’t all be like Jobs due to a variety of reasons, chief among them, the constraints of being accountable to stakeholders within and outside our organizations. But aspire we must. As work we must.

It will be refreshing to see executives instead aspire to become better mentors and collaborators to those under their stewardship. Naturally, innovation will follow because it flourishes in such open, positive cultures.

Jobs’ Stanford speech on “Connecting-the-Dots” is the most telling of all. The ability to introspect, learn from the past and most importantly, to continue to evolve even when one gets terribly de-railed in life are lessons we could all use from time to time.

And even if you don’t become the “RockStar-of-the-Millennium”, you would definitely be garnering tons of good Karma. Jobs was a mighty believer in Karma too. There you go.