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Steve Jobs: A Born Visionary Who Learned to be a Leader

Much ink has been spilled about the loss of Steve Jobs, and the hyperbolic oratory has been amazing to watch. What I take away from it, and will be sharing with clients for years to come, is that Steve Jobs grew into the business leader we saw so dramatically save Apple from the dustbin of history. He didn’t enter the business world ready to lead, and actually had quite a rocky path while he acquired (the hard way, through failure) the leadership skills he put to such good use at Pixar and during his second tenure at Apple.

First the Vision. Then the Leadership.

From the get-go, he had a strong vision of where he wanted to go. His vision was on display way back in 1996, in this interview with Terry Gross on the radio show Fresh Air.

In it, Jobs shared the keys of how he managed to lead industries (computers, animation) into such new, more consumer-oriented directions. At the time, the McIntosh personal computer innovation was his signature developmental (if not profitable) success, which came in part because he dragged his own company through the creative process and challenged them to “think different,” as the famously grammatically incorrect Super Bowl ad declared.

Second, he made what he calls an obvious change to traditional corporate culture: “We didn’t hire people to tell them what to do. We hired people to tell us what to do,” he said to Terry Gross in the interview. Most corporations don’t do that, he added, and he is right.

He called it “obvious,” but giving people the freedom to fail is hard for hierarchical companies. The famously unstructured, creative environments made famous by Silicon Valley technology companies may not have been started by Steve Jobs, but he made it a core tenet within his companies, and reaped the huge creative benefits that it generated.

Impatience and Arrogance are Poor Leadership Traits

Vision notwithstanding, he was a terrible leader in his first stint at Apple Computer, by all accounts.  He was impatient, high-handed, and “always right”, which unsurprisingly alienated all these people he hired to “tell him what to do.” He forced the Lisa computer onto the market against advice, for instance, and it bombed. That lack of leadership skill led to his ouster.

He wasn’t an old dog when he got fired, though, and he went on to learn some new leadership tricks, softening the hard edges, and teaching himself to pick his subordinates more wisely and trust them more. He made a better fist of leadership at Pixar and NeXT computers, which success led him back for a second star turn at Apple.

He never stopped being stubborn, and impatient, and I suspect he still thought he was right most of the time, but as he aged he led better, giving people space to prove him wrong, or improve on what he sought.

His professional life will be studied for years to come, because he truly was that rare “visionary” who earned the chance to have “leader” added to it. That maturation should be a central thread of his tale, and it reinforces the message we strive to deliver in all our work: Everyone within your own organization can learn how to lead if given the chance, the encouragement and the tools. Giving employees that chance is what we do, of course , all day, every day with our clients.

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  • Your point about maturation of Steve Jobs is a key insight. He was not only smarter than most, but willing to change, sometimes radically. thanks!

  • I think that leadership maturation process may be covered in more detail in later biographic works, because his later successes clearly were built on what he learned from his failures. This theme has been overlooked a bit in the immediate wake of his death. Thanks for the “thumbs up!”

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