Should you manage like Steve Jobs?

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As I make my way through the biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson I am struck by the apparent incompatible realities of Steve Jobs. As a manager, especially in his early days, Steve Jobs was as autocratic, manipulative and inconsistent as they come. And yet he transformed several industries, created an incredible amount of wealth and generated a fanatical following.

It might make you wonder if you should toss out your leadership manuals, disregard the expert research and say the heck with it – if Steve Jobs managed like a tyrant, why shouldn’t I? It worked for him.

Reading about Steve Jobs’ management style is like reading about exactly how you are not supposed to manage people. He openly and viciously criticized the work of employees and then would take some of those ideas and present them as his own. When he couldn’t persuade or seduce someone into doing what he wanted he would get emotional and cry. And he was famous for his reality distortion field… or lying. That’s right; he was known for dramatically bending the truth and exaggerating. That kind of behavior would have many people marching into HR and likely result in a termination. (Okay, that actually did happen when Jobs was ousted from Apple, a company he co-founded.)

Perhaps the ends justify the means? After all Jobs created the world’s most valuable company at Apple with a market value of $367 billion. And he turned an initial $10 million investment in Pixar into $7.9 billion when it was purchased by Disney.

As with any successful person, there were grim days like the failed NeXT computer company he started after leaving Apple the first time. And how he kept Apple from being more successful in the early days because of the ill will he fostered, the lack of teamwork and internal competition between various divisions of Apple.

In the biography, Isaacson shares how Jobs insisted that he tell it like it is. Jobs, knowing of his pending mortality wanted Isaacson to tell the whole story. Perhaps one of the reasons is that Steve Jobs wanted people to know the whole story – the good parts and the darkest parts.

Autocratic bosses often take comfort in knowing that several titans of industry have been known to have prickly, autocratic leadership styles. Even Jobs’ “frenemy” Bill Gates at Microsoft wasn’t known for his warmth.

When we explore the Autocratic management style in our leadership sessions we acknowledge that sometimes the autocratic style can work. Where the manager has a crystal clear vision, a tight time frame, a lot of personal knowledge and a lucrative opportunity, he or she can carry the day. Of course they will leave behind them a trail of defensive culture and damaged employees.

So as an aspiring manager, avoid the temptation to copy Steve Jobs’ management style, thinking it was the cause of his success. Upon further examination you will discover that he succeeded despite his approach, not because of it. In reality it was his revolutionary vision combined with good marketing skills and tenacity that truly defined his success. If anything his management style likely held back even greater success in the early days. Like many managers, his less publicized failures helped make him stronger.

Today’s Leadership Action Tip

  • Reading about successful entrepreneurs and business leaders should always be taken in context. There are lessons to be learned from every story. Consider other factors that helped the person succeed including the operating environment, the profit margins they enjoyed, and the level of competition.
  • Remember that for the relatively few examples of tyrannical managers enjoying awe-inspiring success there are many more examples of those types of managers ruining their companies, getting fired and destroying shareholder value.
  • Focus on being constructive – setting ambitious and challenging goals, being curious about achieving fulfillment for yourself and others, encouraging the growth of others and being approachable. It has proven to be the winning strategy for far more managers, supervisors and business owners.

By the way, the book is a fascinating read and I highly recommend it!