Why Steve Jobs Is Not a Leader to Emulate
Steve Jobs, co-founder and visionary leader of Apple, was widely admired for the innovative genius that brought us the iMac, the iPhone, the iPod, and the iPad, not to mention the ever growing iTunes.
And with his passing late last year, legions of management consultants, academics, and business leaders extol Jobs’ virtues as a leader. But is it deserved? I would say it is not, if you take a balanced look at what constitutes good leadership in modern organizations.
Jobs was a complex man full of contradictions, says biographer Leander Kahney. He was an espoused Zen Buddhist which is anti-materialist, yet built the ultimate company that advocates living a technologically materialistic life. In an age where leadership transparency is encouraged as part of a healthy democratic system, Jobs instilled a culture of secrecy and surveillance in Apple workplaces, complete with video cameras constantly monitoring its engineers, and a “need to know only” system of internal communication.
To say that Jobs was a micromanager would be an understatement. His autocratic and egotistical style led to his early power struggle with Apple’s board of directors and he left in 1984, only to return in 1997 to build Apple into the global powerhouse it is today. During both stints at Apple, Jobs’ leadership style could be characterized as “carrot and stick,” using praise and flattery, but more often fear and criticism. When Fortune magazine profiled America’s toughest bosses, it said of Jobs, his “inhuman drive for perfection can burn out even the most motivated worker.” Kahney claimed Jobs’ verbal assaults on staff, replete with foul language, were terrifying. Fortune magazine dubbed him “one of Silicon Valley’s leading egomaniacs.”
If Jobs was such a great leader, who oversaw in detail virtually all aspects of Apple’s business, how could he either be unaware of the situation with Foxconn or allowed it to happen in the first place? Labour conditions in Apple’s Foxconn manufacturing plants in China were reportedly dissmal. In reaction to a spate of suicides where 14 workers died in 2010, a report by 20 Chinese universities described Foxconn factories as labour camps and detailed widespread worker abuse and illegal overtime. In response, Foxconn installed suicide-prevention netting at facilities and promised substantially higher wages at its Shenzhen production bases. This January, it was reported that 150 workers in Wuhan threatened to commit mass suicide because of worsening work conditions. The employees claimed they had asked for a raise but were told they could either quit with compensation or keep their jobs with no raise. The employees quit, but received no compensation.
Claiming Steve Jobs was a great leader smacks more of hero worship than an objective view of what a great organizational leader should be and do. Extolling his virtues to a new generation of up-and-coming leaders would be a serious mistake.
The concern I have, and that is reflected by other leadership experts, is the faulty cause and effect, and “ends justifies the means” arguments that hold up Jobs as a leader to be emulated. It goes something like this: It doesn’t matter what kind of boss you are like—meaning abusive—as long as you get results (financial); and as long as you attain your goal (financial results), any methods to get there are okay, including abusing people.
The idolization of Jobs’ style of leadership is so counter to the general trend leadership in our society. Authoritarian leaders are not concerned about the will and needs of their followers. They lead primarily through coercion. If there is a vision, the followers must share the leader’s vision. And while clever authoritarian leaders have learned the language of teamwork, collaboration, and shared purpose, their view of the world still requires obedience.
A University of Iowa study, “Perpetuating Abusive Supervision: Third-Party Reactions to Abuse in the Workplace, found “when a supervisor’s performance outcomes are high, abusive behaviour tends to be overlooked when they evaluate that supervisor’s effectiveness.” In other words, while people might not want to be friends with an abusive boss, overbearing boss, they’ll tolerate his behaviour as long as he is productive.
Perhaps the explanation is that our culture, and that includes business, is obsessed with hero workshop and celebrities inordinately including their bad behaviour. Where charisma and wealth become the predominant measure of success rather than societal well-being and how we treat each other, abusive leaders will continue to have a following. One thing is certain, bringing up the next generation of leaders to emulate Steve Jobs’ will take our organizations, if not our society, backwards.
Ray Williams is president of Ray Williams Associates, a company based in Vancouver, providing leadership training and executive coaching services. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.