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Jan 31, 2012

Was Steve Jobs a good leader?

Odd exceptions that stretch the rule can be instructive

By Dave Crisp

One might think questioning Steve Jobs' leadership absurd in light of his company’s financial results over the last few years. Or you might write off his success to pure luck. I’m not sure either fits. His style was nothing if not controversial, but maybe it can be explained with current theories of leadership success.

I used to puzzle over an expression I haven’t heard in a while — “the exception that proves the rule.” How can we say this, I always wondered, when an exception by definition would seem to defy the rule. Later I read that the old meaning of “prove” was “test” as in “proving grounds.” So an exception tests the rule — and certainly if you find the rule still applies, it adds to the proof the rule makes sense.

One can write off any success to luck and it’s always a key factor, but Jobs clearly was successful several times and followed rules of his own, whether they seemed understandable to us or not, so it’s unlikely to have been pure randomness. The core question remains — was that good leadership? And, if so, what does that mean to my leadership theory or the many others that would seem to say his style is unlikely to succeed (and certainly wasn’t pleasant for employees)?

In the wake of Jobs passing, I put off drawing conclusions because I felt I was missing something. In the interim I’ve read two biographies on him, a number of reviews and a good many articles because I think it's important to answer such puzzles. Ultimately, I’ve come to some conclusions.

My leadership theory says three relevant things. First, luck is always a factor. But you increase your chances of success if you (second) include five key elements in your leadership style — balancing positive with honest, and strategies with habit-building or implementation skills (those are the five in italics). And you improve your odds further if you either develop great strengths in all five areas (rare) or develop them in some areas and find partners to assist you in the areas where you lack strengths.

Jobs is a very, very extreme case of this, but it worked, albeit in a rather odd way he certainly never planned out. I conclude he wasn’t a great leader by himself, nor by knowing how, just through sheer determination and somehow sensing the need for the five elements in strength and finding ways to supplement what he didn’t have.

What he did bring to the party was a rather strange twist on emotional intelligence abilities — those being the positive/honest dimension in my model. His staff used to say he could create a "reality distortion field" in any lengthy conversation or presentation. He was amazing at presenting his arguments in such a way people walked away totally pumped, completely positive he would succeed, wanting to participate. They "drank the Kool-aid" as some would say, time after time — and so did analysts at conferences and trade shows. He even pushed Apple to design top-notch presentation software as a key priority, many say, in order to use it to further this over-the-top skill of his.

One reason he was forced to this super-positivity was because he constantly went over the top on the other end of the EI or EQ spectrum. He aimed to be so brutally honest it was extremely painful to work with him. He would rip people to shreds the second they failed to deliver to his image of what he expected, often highly unrealistic expectations. The latter is typical of great leaders who "get away with it" — to push for results that seem to almost everyone else beyond the realm of what’s even possible. But it’s also typical of wild visionaries whose whacky dreams fail miserably. Jobs stumbled into a very extreme balance, but balance nonetheless, by accident.

On another key axis — IQ, the ability to generate workable ideas and implement them — I think Jobs was much less adept, but no less extreme. Perhaps even weaker would not be too strong. The defining feature that made his initial fortune through the Mac, for instance, was the concept of the computer mouse with its ability to point, click and activate menus, commands, highlights and more. He didn’t invent this, but saw it at the Xerox PARC labs and recognized — that was his skill in the strategy area — recognized that it had world-class appeal and function. It did, but he couldn’t build it or implement it himself, lacking all the skills needed to do so.

Through his belief that one truly good employee could deliver 50 times the actual implementation of a poor one, he triaged through computer geniuses, insulting and humiliating many in the interests of finding a few who would buy into his reality distortions and deliver fabulous technical machines in a fraction of the time everyone imagined was necessary. It seems certain he was never happy with the results or the speed, but settled for the best he could get by cracking his whip and driving toward the idea he’d spotted that would appeal to consumers.

His strength in the strategies (or ideas) area was to spot. In the implementation area, it was to drive others, since he had absolutely no skills there himself except to see when something wasn’t yet good enough to appeal to non-technical individuals. In that respect, you have to say his inability to do any of the technical stuff himself was actually an asset — he would simply keep pushing until something worked simply enough even for him.

So in a very odd way, Jobs does in fact fit my theory of leadership, albeit in a way I never imagined and would never recommend. He found a peculiar balance of the key elements. He had to be beyond optimistic, but brutal. He had to be capable of identifying the one core idea that was better than every other, and then drive the associates he could bamboozle into joining to produce it ever more simply, quickly and cheaply. 

But it didn’t always work. In several tries — with his Lisa computer, NEXT and in film animation — he nearly bankrupted himself or the company because a reliable overall balance was never really there. Nevertheless, he believed in his own distortion field to the point of nearly losing his house, investing in a new idea before it caught on.

I’m far more interested in tamer applications of my model, ones that anyone can learn and succeed with, but there’s no doubt in my mind this exception does "prove the rule."

It also could have been disastrous had luck not clicked at the moments it did for Jobs because there was absolutely no balance in the third dimension — how fast you go. As with riding a bicycle (an example of balancing several skills I often liken to leadership), if you don’t go fast enough or if you go too fast the balance is in danger of being lost.

Jobs risked going far too fast for safety, but that was simply another of his personality quirks and unlike many other entrepreneurs he got away with it. Big time.

It appears he was driven somewhat like Alexander the Great. Believing he might die young, he had to achieve greatness in the short time he had. And, like Alexander, the prophecy seemed to come true unfortunately, just when Jobs had matured more toward the point of planning the balance instead of crashing into it and nearly wrecking everyone along his way. We can thank his indomitable impetuousness for speeding us along the digital path, but we should be glad we weren’t part of the painful process.

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit
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Beating around the Jobs!
Friday, May 04, 2012 11:38:00 PM by Dave Crisp
Thanks Nicasio. I was taken to task over another post about Jobs for being to harsh, particularly on Apple. There's no doubt that it's a company everyone has opinions about, but it's hard not to notice it's huge financial success of the moment. Whether that lasts, whether it was all obtained 'the right way' or 'the wrong way' and whether we should keep making such success the much-aspired-to target that it seems to be are all questions to ponder, that may only be answered by future generations. From a pure leadership point of view, Jobs' achievement, no matter how achieved, has to be questioned and studied in order to eventually answer such questions so we can understand what it is we aspire to emulate and what we want to train our next generation of executives to do or not do.
Beating around the Jobs!
Friday, May 04, 2012 6:31:00 PM by Nicasio Martinez
"And, if so, what does that mean to my leadership theory or the many others that would seem to say his style is unlikely to succeed (and certainly wasn’t pleasant for employees)?"

Your piece was very generous to the late Jobs. More will be told of his decision to manufacture his products in China-- workers mental and physcial health and safety were not of great concern to him. Starting the school of learning mass tax evasion was another of his gifts to large multinational corporations. With these few points mentioned he was a negative to the US economy and multiplied impact in this area many times over. I could never afford Apple products but have been grateful for other companies that offer affordable products.
There's a lot to study when it comes to Steve Jobs
Wednesday, February 01, 2012 9:50:00 PM by John Hobel
Great, thoughtful article Dave. First off I apprecaite the explanation of "proves the rule." I've wondered about that myself.
Second, considering the success of Apple, Jobs certainly is someone management thinkers and academics need to study — a big and hard to pin down personality. In addition to books, there are some good news pieces and documentaries on him already, and likely more to come for years as we dissect his management style.
I think an important thing to remember is that Bill Gates and Microsoft saved Jobs when Apple needed cash and help — and from what I've read about Gates I'd pick working for him over Jobs any day.