Oct 142011

As expected and sudden was the inevitable and tragic end to Steve Jobs’s life, so too is it surprising yet necessary that an outpouring of praise and emotion would follow. We all loved his inventions. The Twitterverse was rightfully aflame with stories about Steve.

As if drawn nearly as perfectly as the interfaces he and his team dedicated their lives to, the final measure of his arc marks a very clean and a nearly perfect transition into history. The last brilliant burst that characterized his second tenure at the helm of Apple was a perfect, if not — from today’s vantage point — a seemingly inevitable concluding crescendo. Beethoven would have been proud. Jobs will have no discordant, lengthy, and painful downward spiral that we too often see afflict charismatic founding CEOs; no tragic battle with a colorful competitor that surpasses him; and no palace intrigue and coup attempts to stain his career. I suppose great historians will be weeping for other reasons. Again, like his creations, his history now writes itself out beautifully and unaided, requiring less of an expert hand to wring out the right emotional effect and lessons learned. As bad as the timing may seem in the here and now, God and nature had the good sense to choose their timing well. While the good may die young, when the great exit in this manner, immortality follows swiftly.

What I find most intriguing about Jobs is not his inventions and interfaces, not his seemingly confident grasp of the whole of a large and wealthy 21st-century enterprise, and not even his immediate step into history. What has been discordantly thrashing in my brain is the contradiction he represents in terms of leadership style and approach. The oddities leap off the page.

Innovation. Before this last incarnation of Apple, a conventional wisdom had been established for some time that large corporations were dead and that great imagination and world-class innovation will not, should not, and cannot come from the center of the corporation, much less the executive suite. Jobs and his team threw that bad idea into the garbage can. Not only can the center of the corporation innovate, it can do so through a surprisingly small number of people and then dominate its markets, grinding formidable competitors into dust. Thanks to Jobs and Apple, we have reason to believe that innovation can, and must, come from the enterprise’s core.

Autocracy. While Jobs was clearly a control freak, he was very much in command of the myriad of details he sought to control. He was able to descend low in the organization, dealing with dozens and dozens of direct reports and still rise up to the level of the strategic and the simple. His tendency toward rudeness and abruptness in meetings instilled fear in many employees. His ability to maintain secrecy on new products runs counter to the openness and community co-creation that many in the vanguard of technology innovation think is best. His expert control of the high and the low is as old as the hills, practiced and documented in ancient Rome where the emperor Trajan, standing in command at the height of the Roman empire at the beginning of the second century, saw it still necessary to drop down several levels and inspect troop training.

Charisma. While charisma is still today enshrined in the pantheon of leadership virtues, many young technology leaders today appear droll, dry, or daffy. No so with Jobs. His ability to clarify, distill, and explain succinctly became as evident as what he was explaining. Job’s persistent eloquence was probably his chief leadership skill. This use of oration and persuasion harkens us back to so many chapters in ancient and recent political and military history where historians present these gifts as not only necessary, but as distinguishing leadership marks.

Vision. Jobs saw what needed to be done, and not just with product innovation, but with building a 21st-century firm. Apple’s success in internal operations, marketing, product management, supply chain management, and now, it is hoped, succession planning, is probably due in part to Jobs’s vision for what Apple needed to look like to compete. Interestingly, what he and his team created is what you typically hear in leadership seminars and read in books. All these subdisciplines are necessary components for CEOs to master. But his approach to the vision is not what you would read in those same books. It is unlikely that anyone schooled in today’s leadership dogma would aspire to lead like Steve. It seems much too autocratic, much too disempowering, maybe even cruel, and perhaps relies much too much on the vision of just one person. Regardless, Jobs’s vision has numbers that speak for themselves. The three that pop out for me are Apple’s market capitalization, its revenue per employee, and its level of profit share in the markets in which it competes. His vision and approach resulted in big outcomes.

Excellence. It is not clear to me that Jobs was motivated by money, fame, or the trappings of power — in sharp contrast to other IT executives we all know. What Jobs projected and what we all sensed was that he was motivated by the excellence in the experience. Unless that experience (and our experience) was as perfect as his teams’ mind saw it, he was not happy. As has been written about him, he tirelessly clashed with or persuaded those who said otherwise. His passion for excellence was apparent.

Will. All of the above-mentioned traits are probably bound together in a will to dominate his markets through the pursuit of excellence. Bordering on, if not clearly crossing over into, the land of obsession, Jobs’s will to perfect resulted in a most dominating company. This will disrupt just a few significant markets: computers, mobile phones, music, movies, and now this book-thingy sort of whatchamacallits (whatever we will call the pad/tablet market). It is not often in our lifetimes or in history that one will and one vision can do this much.

Looking back at these traits, it is clear Jobs built what I could argue is the most noteworthy company of the early part of the 21st century. And he did so with traits and techniques as old as civilization. While he advanced technology significantly, he did not necessarily advance the art of leadership in as much as he gave us yet another example of great leadership done well in a very ancient and a very human fashion.

In 1926, B.H. Liddell Hart had the audacity to argue at length that the renowned Roman figure, Scipio Africanus, was a greater military leader than Napoleon and the greatest of all time. I will not make such an argument here with Jobs except to say that by posing the question of whether Jobs is greater than Scipio, I can make clearer that Jobs’s conception of leadership, while illuminating and exhilarating, only extends and does not challenge our ancient notions of leadership. We will forgive the autocratic, obsessive, and willful leader when overwhelming measures of vision, excellence, and charisma achieve great things. That in itself is instructive. Are all these traits a single bundle that are better together rather than split apart? Had Jobs’s career ended on a sour note, what would we be saying now? What should leaders learn from the lessons of Jobs?

While many leaders today are not taught to behave like Steve did, Jobs’s example proves that when it comes to leadership, there are multiple right answers. Each right answer is necessarily intertwined with the personality of the leader.

As much as Jobs changed the industry, his superb answer to the leadership question was a timeless one.

[Editor’s Note: This post was originally published earlier this week as an Advisor of Cutter’s Business Technology Strategies Practice. We think it’s a wonderful tribute and quite thought-provoking, and so we asked Vince Kellen to post it here to share it with the business technology community at large. You can read a collection of reflections on Steve Jobs’s contributions to our industry and the global community from Cutter Fellows and Senior Consultants in their recent Council Opinion, A Tribute to Steve Jobs.]


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