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Published: May 29, 2012
 / Summer 2012 / Issue 67

 
 

The Steve Jobs Way

When it came to teamwork, Jobs had a highly effective modus operandi with a dark side. He always challenged teams — from those involved in the early product efforts led by Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak onward — to reach beyond the possible. A few strong people thrived on this, rising to become top performers who were highly motivated by the pride they derived from striving to meet the challenge. But many others were needlessly frustrated. The price a leader pays 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 fostered at his companies: Even through the 10 years he was exiled from Apple, the underlying essence of the culture he established somehow stayed alive. On the other hand, 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 Jobs-like results? The short answer is no. Applied to the wrong strategy, market, or product, his behaviors could sink a company. In the end, what made Jobs such a successful leader was his much-lauded talent at envisioning and delivering breakthrough products and services. His ability to innovate for his customers in a way few leaders had done before served as a salve to his gruff personal style.

Very few top leaders pay as much attention to product and design detail as Jobs did. He always considered simplicity, functionality, and consumer appeal before cost efficiency, sales volume, or even profit. That attention was integral to the strategic and marketing capabilities of his companies. In these respects, Jobs was an entrepreneurial leader in the mode of Walt Disney and Edwin Land, both of whom he admired.

Jobs famously said that “customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them.” Indeed, he had a remarkable, but not infallible, ability to develop products that consumers would buy and savor, as well as the confidence, courage, and drive to bring them to life. Part and parcel of this appeal was Jobs’s remarkably clean sense of design, which Isaacson traces back to his study of Zen Buddhism and, further still, to his adoptive father, a blue-collar mechanic who rebuilt cars in the family’s garage for extra income. Much of Jobs’s genius — and Isaacson contends his genius was for “imaginative leaps [that] were instinctive, unexpected, and at times magical” — stemmed from his ability to integrate diverse disciplines, particularly the humanities and science, a sort of synthesis of artistry and engineering.

With age and experience, Steve Jobs became a better leader of people. Although Jobs was never one to dwell on his own shortcomings, Isaacson quotes a statement he made during a 2007 conference in which he revealed a somewhat reluctant, even latent sense of an important flaw. “Because Woz and I started the company based on doing the whole banana, we weren’t so good at partnering with people,” he said of Apple’s design philosophy. “I think if Apple could have had a little more of that in its DNA, it would have served it extremely well.” Jobs would have benefited from more of that in his leadership DNA, too. Who knows — if he had had more time, he might have been able to close that gap altogether.

 
 
 
 
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