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Was Steve Jobs Really a Good Leader?


by Clif Boutelle

SIOP panel analyzes Steve Jobs’ leadership style

When it comes to successful corporate leadership as advocated by academics and practitioners based upon years of research studying the traits of successful leaders, Steve Jobs, the late leader of Apple Inc., is an anomaly.

At SIOP’s annual conference in Houston, a panel assessed Jobs’ authoritarian leadership style as it contrasted with the democratic style of leadership emanating from psychological research.

Panelists included William C. Byham, cofounder, chairman, and CEO of Development Dimensions International, an internationally renowned human resource training and consulting company; David B. Peterson, director of executive coaching and leadership at Google; Walter Reichman, a consultant with management consulting firm OrgVitality; and independent leadership consultant Gordon Curphy. Jeffrey Saltzman, CEO of OrgVitality, served as moderator.

They all have years of both academic and practitioner experience on the qualities that make good business leaders and have implemented sound leadership practices in successful organizations throughout the world.

Saltzman acknowledged that Jobs changed the world and the nature of work. “There’s no doubt about that,” he said.

But was he a good leader? The panelists’ opinions were mixed but concluded his leadership style and ultimate success should give I-Os cause to reflect on their own theories of successful leadership.

Research has shown that successful leaders are those who are able to combine a consideration for employees with an emphasis on accomplishing the work. Jobs showed only the latter is needed for successful leadership.

In fact, psychological research has shown that authoritarian leadership leads to lower and less creative productivity, increased absenteeism, greater turnover, increased theft, and great dissatisfaction.

Rather, Jobs showed it leads to the development of a great company and the introduction of new products that have enhanced the lives of many throughout the world, products like iPhones, iPads and laptops.

“Jobs had a difficult time working with people and with boards, but he was a wonderful salesperson and he used that salesmanship to get along with those he needed,” Byham pointed out. “He was a wonderful motivator and his ‘let’s get it done’ attitude permeated the entire organization,” he added.

Reichman said that Jobs was brutal in the way he treated people. “I know I couldn’t have lasted 3 hours with him. Yet, somehow he enticed people to follow him.”

“People followed him because everyone likes to be with a winner, and Apple is a winner. They followed him out of self-interest because they knew they could make a lot of money,” Curphy said.

“Feeling mistreated within an organization is not unusual,” Peterson said, “Many people feel somewhat mistreated but they learn to adapt to it.”

Reichman cautioned young leaders not to emulate Jobs’ leadership style. “His is not the only path to effective leadership. He was difficult in many ways. I would not recommend graduate students use Jobs as a role model. If they do and do not possess his personality, they will have problems,” he said.

Peterson said one of Jobs’ greatest strengths was persistence. When a project failed, he kept trying. “The aspect of him that is worth emulating is his passion and persistence and commitment to learning,” he said.

Jobs believed he was right on most things, but he needed to inspire others. He adapted and changed and introduced new products despite failing miserably at times, Peterson said.

Curphy cited a major difference in Jobs leadership style. “Most corporate CEOs are too sensitive and manage for the short term and to please the board. Jobs was not like that,” Curphy said.

In fact, Jobs left or was fired by the Apple board when he did not get along with them but later the board, realizing its mistake, brought him back and he returned the company to profitability with a string of successful products.

Peterson said that Jobs’ decisions were not made for financial purposes, and he was not responsive to external pressures, even when some of his projects failed.

Reichman suggested that Jobs represents an element of leadership that I-Os have neglected. “None of our theories encompass Steve Jobs. We don’t have a theory for his leadership style. There is a message for I-Os and that is to review our theories on leadership,” he said.

“Actually, if you looked at the most admired CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, our measurements might never result in their being hired,” Peterson added.