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More Leadership Lessons from Steve Jobs

It seems that nearly everyone is jumping on the bandwagon to highlight the leadership lessons we should learn from Steve Jobs’ business success.  A particularly well written piece is Walt Isaacson’s summary in HBR of his incredible biography of Jobs.  But let’s face it, if we are truly introspective and rational we can probably agree that none of us have Steve’s product vision and sense of the market.  As such, we have as many things to learn from what he did wrong as what he did right.  I for one stand in absolute horror and dismay at his approach and overall attitude and am amazed that he was capable of overcoming his many personality and leadership shortcomings.  Here are a few lessons derived from Steve’s shortcomings:

Don’t be a Brilliant Jerk:   I wish I could claim that I dreamt up this term, but it comes from Reed Hastings.  After reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, I can’t help but think that Jobs was a jerk his entire life.  He screwed over his friends from the start of his early career, such as when he used Wozniak at Atari for his own personal gain.   He would cry when he didn’t get his way, and scream at those who didn’t agree with him.  There simply is no room for this type of behavior if you want a truly high performing team.  Maybe you can get away with it if you truly are the next Steve Jobs – but you probably aren’t.  And even if one of us is the next Steve Jobs, the real question we all should ask ourselves is “How great would Steve Jobs have been if he had treated people with compassion and respect?”

Walk the Talk:   Steve would eschew certain perks like a private parking spot and then park nearly every day in the handicapped parking spot.  What kind of jerk does something like that?  You are much better off taking the private space than pretending to be egalitarian and then deciding to violate the rules whenever it suits you to do so.  The people you lead will see that your actions don’t match your statements.  That in turn just makes you another pompous stuffed shirt.

Don’t Steal Your People’s Ideas and Accomplishments:   Great leaders inspire their teams to accomplish great things.  Few things are as deflating to team morale as stealing the ideas and accomplishments of the team and representing them as your own.  Isaacson’s book has plenty of examples where Jobs did just that, and it is clear from the reaction of the people that they felt slighted.  You will always get credit for team accomplishments even if you don’t try to do so.  You are better off ensuring that the folks who truly contributed to the accomplishment get recognized appropriately.  On the flip side, you should always take the blame for team failures – it is part of your job.  That’s not to say that you shouldn’t turn around and coach, develop or fire those who did not perform – you should.  But you can never delegate accountability and you are ultimately accountable for each and every failure.

Use Data and Evidence:   Steve apparently had a number of quirks.  He thought, at one point, that eating an apple (or fruit) only diet would keep him from having BO.  He unfortunately believed, with very little data or evidence, that special diets might help him in his fight with cancer without surgery even when friends and medical professionals urged him to have an early low risk surgery with a high rate of success.  There is no doubt that Steve had great intuition in certain areas such as the development of high tech products.  But as the Dunning-Kruger effect tells us and as Steve’s unfortunate choices show us, we are terrible at identifying where we are great and where we aren’t – or where our intuition is great and where it is not.  As a result, relying on our intuition when data exists that can guide our approaches is a recipe for disaster.  At the very least, data can be confirmatory and even better it can just show us the right answer or path.  Always remember that what matters most is success.  The need to be perceived as being right is for egotistical jerks; the need to get great results is a fiduciary responsibility.  The easiest way to get great results is to rely on great data to help drive great and timely decisions.

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  • Geoffrey Weber

    in April 6th, 2012 @ 22:02

    Timely and spot on. While the Jobs biography was entertaining, I found far more useful leadership advice in the first 30 pages of Paula Broadwell’s “All In: The Education of General David Petraeus” than the entirety of Isaacson’s work.


    • Wabb

      in April 10th, 2012 @ 19:04

      Thanks GW. I agree. Jobs accomplished incredible things. I just can’t help but wonder how great he would have been, and how much more he would have accomplished had he taken a different approach.

      You can have incredibly high standards (he did) and still treat people with dignity and respect (he apparently didn’t). The two aren’t mutually exclusive, though often we assume they are to excuse rude behaviors.

      I also believe we can learn as much from leadership anti-patterns as we can from leadership patterns…