Steve Jobs’ tragic death yesterday resulted in great accolades, making it easy to forget that he took a lot of criticism for his leadership style during his tenure at Apple. I think businesses would do well to study the Steve Jobs leadership method and take a few pages from his playbook. The bottom line in business ultimately is more than just having a vision. It’s the effective execution of vision. And nobody knew how to play the “get stuff done” game like Steve Jobs did. Some of the folks in the business community who took issue with his leadership manners tend to have more than a few things in common: they didn’t create the iPhone or the iPad and didn’t generate more than 8.3 billion dollars stemming largely from their own ideas.
Collaboration is important and it took a lot of people, all with great ideas, to fuel Apple’s tremendous success. Many companies have both of these important ingredients but haven’t been able to leverage huge successes from them. The Steve Jobs factor is what pushed Apple in its meteoric rise. All of the collaboration in the world and all the thought leadership imaginable are no good for a company if the leaders don’t have a Jobs-like character to tie it all together and push for measurable results.
In many ways, Jobs’ stint as CEO of Apple mirrors the model of the benevolent dictator. His leadership style contained more than hints of a “cult of personality” model found in some less than savory political regimes. But this worked in Apple’s favor. The average American consumer knows the names of very few CEOs. But Steve Jobs was so inextricably tied in with Apple’s brand that everybody tended to associate Steve Jobs with the Apple logo and vice versa. Of course, there are risks associated with such a close link between a corporate brand and the public image of a CEO. But Steve Jobs pulled it off.
The leaders of most Fortune 500 companies have neither the skill nor the desire to delve into product management to the extent that Jobs did. In many ways, Jobs was the ultimate jack-of-all-trades at Apple. He was as involved in product management as he was with carefully crafting the Apple image. And Jobs had the additional advantage of uncanny intuition. He wasn’t always able to make something work, but he always knew whether something would be a hit when someone else made it work.
Jobs may have driven people hard, but he was by no means a tyrant. It’s hard to point to any time where Jobs drove anybody harder than himself, medical issues aside. And something worth considering: as brilliant and artistic as Apple’s media campaign and brand awareness initiatives were, at no time did they promise something that their products couldn’t deliver.
During Jobs’s tenure, Apple worked its way into the zeitgeist in a manner most companies would envy, but I don’t know anyone who was seduced by an Apple advertisement who later had any disappointment with an Apple product. I’ll admit—I’ve consumed the Apple Kool-Aid. From my very first iPod to my latest MacBook Pro, I think that Apple has some of the greatest products that a person can purchase. During Jobs’s tenure at Apple, the products that Apple was hawking were never less appealing or deserving than the catchy Apple ads promised.
Contemporary leadership requires collaborating and trusting your team members to accomplish tasks. Steve Jobs was good at this. But the extra ingredient Jobs brought to the table—and which is often lacking in the corporate world—was a little more old-fashioned. He tended to trust his gut instincts, and a look back on his tenure with all of the successes Apple had, proves his gut instincts were pretty darn good.