Leadership Lessons From Steve Jobs?

Earlier this year I had finished Walt Isaacson‘s biography of Steve Jobs. It was a great read with a litany of insights to be garnered out of the book. In fact, I would make this book required reading for every employee in the electronics and retail industries. I will frequently run through a mental index of many of those insights but there is one in particular that continues to stick with me and causes me to examine my understanding of best leadership practices. Throughout the book Isaacson shared examples of Steve’s leadership or people management style.  Jobs would oscillating back and forth when giving his employees feedback on their work.  He would bounce between “This is Shit” and the occasional “This is Amazing.”

From Isaacson’s account there were a fair number of employees who didn’t care for Job’s antics but there were also many who would tolerate the outbursts and stayed loyal to Jobs. Those that stayed were the ones who often would profess as to Jobs’ leadership prowess and the magic he would perform in getting people to extend beyond what they thought they were capable of.  They would create something extraordinary. While I personally struggle with the “This is Shit” mode of feedback, I (like most other parents) do understand the benefits of “tough love” feedback and candor.  My question is: are the extremes necessary or is it simply a case of correlation vs. causation for Jobs and the success of Apple?

One thing I am certain of is that this managing “at the extremes” can be very dangerous and difficult to find the equilibrium. There are a plethora of “leaders” out there who try (or will try) to practice the same management style and do not understand the nuance of balance between these two extremes.  In a past life I had witnessed several leaders who would continually press their employees for more, faster, or to find the “perfect” answer; never seizing the opportunity to share a “This is Amazing” win with their team. While it is sustainable in the short run it will never last in the long run – and eventually most of the talented people found better opportunities with better “leaders.”

2 replies to “Leadership Lessons From Steve Jobs?”

  1. Jarett Lettner | Jul 13, 2012, 1:18 pm

    simply the most fascinating topic of my professional career, and the biggest challenge we have as leaders of people. how do we inspire people to break thru their comfort zones, do more … do amazing things, without burning them out? The true passionate leader is becoming more and more rare, especially in large companies. As our corporations become more sanitized (stale), there is little room left for passion. And how do we manage passion with creativity, or a lack thereof. We have lots of upper mgmt demanding “game changers” without the ability to create them.

  2. matthew.hunt | Jul 13, 2012, 3:13 pm

    I love the line about ‘demanding “game changers” without the ability to create them.’ This is another one that I often hear ‘there is little time or money spent on leadership development – I am too busy trying to keep my head about water as it is.’ In business we often talk about ‘balanced scorecards’ that rate employees or business performance based on multiple criteria. Were is the scorecard that rates how are building our future leaders? A friend and former colleague used to love to quote Larry Bossidy “I am convinced that nothing we do is more important than hiring and developing people. At the end of the day you bet on people, not on strategies.”

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