Steve Jobs and the importance of leadership

Steve Jobs Apple

Steve Jobs

I don’t know if you caught in the news recently about the stepping back of the CEO of Apple – Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs founded Apple way back in the mists of time and after stepping down for a while some years ago returned to take over the wheel again.



Update 6th Oct 2011 – RIP – Steve Jobs in his own words

Apple, of course, is the iconic, IT company that has created a lot of the recent hype around technology – iphones, ipad, ipod and of course the Apple Mac computer. You are either a Apple freak or you are not. There doesn’t appear to be any middle ground.

Apple LogoWhen I was at theological college one of the students swore by the Apple Mac – although everything that he actually wanted to do you could do on a normal PC (but that’s another story).

And the question of whether a leader creates a great company or the company creates the great leader was raised this week when Steve Jobs announced his stepping back from managing the company and the company share price went down by £12.5 bn (that is £12,500,000,000). Now that is a lot of money and it appears that the market believes that he is worth that amount to the value of the company.

But there again it was the same banks that believed some run down properties in the US owned by people who couldn’t afford mortgages was a good investment.

The guardian had an interesting article about this in the past few days. It points out that if you listened to the hype that there was no one else at Apple other than Steve Jobs

The messiah talk ignores the fact that Apple has around 46,600 full-time employees and another 3,000 temporary staff – including some of the best designers and marketers in the business. Far from being a semi-mystical software visionary, Jobs is a ruthless office politician

It points out that Jobs is part of the trend of CEO’s to put themselves forward no longer as a manager but rather as a visionary leader. Now I think that this is the key insight from the article.

A manager manages. A manager doesn’t see that their key attribute is to change everything it is more the idea of a steward. Someone cares for an organisation for a while – a set of people and helps them along the road.

A leader wants to be Moses bringing the Law. They want and see themselves as a deal-breaker, a saviour. Someone who will radically change the organisation. A manager doesn’t see it in these terms.

The distinction is an important one. I visited the US branch of a Finnish bank once and had to wait for my contacts and happened to flick through the bank’s phone directory. There were 81 employees of whom 36 were Vice Presidents. There was also one manager (who I found out was British and hated all the Vice President stuff).

Now the one manage realised that he played a specific role in the bank. He wasn’t trying to change it and “make his mark” except in how he did his work and cared for the things in his charge. The problem can sometimes be that everyone wants to be the deal changer. Everyone wants to be the visionary.

Gordon Brown manager

Gordon Brown - manager not leader

But here is the thing. I don’t think that most business leaders (or political leaders etc) are visionary leaders. Most are managers. John Major was a manager, Gordon Brown was a manager, Wilson, Heath were managers.

But every now and again you get a leader who comes along and they really are the real mccoy. They change the game (whether you like it or not). In recent decades in UK politics the two who stand out as leaders are Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. Both changed not only their parties but also changed the rules of the game.

Margaret Thatcher - visionary

Margaret Thatcher - visionary

Few organisations have many of them and I don’t think that many organisations could truly deal with many – one following the next. It’s often the case that after a visionary has been on the scene that an organisation needs time and space to bed the ideas down – in other words it is at this point that it needs a manager.

So how about Steve Jobs? I do think that he is a visionary leader. It’s not that he designs stuff or produces stuff himself, its that he helps the organisation keep its eye on the key things that are important. He has a feel and flair for it.

The Guardian tries to minimise this

Take, for instance, the iPad: the display panel is probably from a Korean contractor, the backlight will have been knocked up by a Taiwanese firm and the GPS is likely to have been made in Germany. Then there is the battery (Chinese, perhaps), the flash memory (which could well be from Japan’s Toshiba) and the case (Taiwan, again).

But this is beside the point. The key is not where the bits were assembled. The key is the design and marketing and flair of the product. Its the way the organisation runs and how it feels about itself. As the Guardian admits

True, before Jobs rejoined the fold, the question most commonly asked about the company he co-founded was how long it had left before making the corporate obituaries.

Now this isn’t to decry the work and effort of those working for Jobs. Its that he enabled them to harness their gifts and talents for the common good.

The same was true about Winston Churchill. Churchill in the war was a great prime minister because he harried people to make a difference in the war effort. He helped to encapsulate what the British people wanted to achieve and gave voice to it. But he was always being over ruled by his chiefs of staff and he was no great shakes as a peacetime prime minister. A visionary was not what peacetime Britain needed or wanted – instead it wanted a manager – Clement Atlee.

Jobs will very likely be followed by a manager. Someone who will bed in the vision and flair of Jobs into the long-term business.

The danger comes for an organisation when they look for a visionary leader. They all too often end up taking someone who is self-obsessed about their own standing and making a difference. When I worked for Digital Equipment Corporation in the early ’90s it was going through a period of transition away from the man who created DEC. They ended up going for a visionary. he halved the company and it ended up being sold off – this was the 2nd largest computer company in the world!

So when an organisation changes its leadership it needs to be clear what it needs and the role of the person needed. Visionaries aren’t always what is needed and often the people we may perceive are visionaries really aren’t!


8 comments on “Steve Jobs and the importance of leadership

  1. Jean
    January 26, 2011 at 11:40 pm #

    Should I accept these views from a Blackberry man?
    When I worked for the boys in blue, we had a ‘corporate training’ on the different roles of leaders and managers. Very interesting and relevant to all walks of life. I think the differences are usually evident to the followers or those being managed than the man or woman in the role.

  2. Will Cookson
    January 27, 2011 at 9:15 am #

    Should I accept this comment from a woman who upgraded from an iphone 3 to an iphone 4????

    Seriously, I agree with you. My problem is much more with those leaders who almost define themselves as visionary. There are far too many of them around and usually they aren’t.

  3. Angela Baker
    January 27, 2011 at 10:50 am #

    I would be interested to know, Will, if you see yourself as a visionary or a manager.

  4. Harvey Edser
    January 27, 2011 at 11:01 am #

    Me too! I’m not sure I totally agree with the visionary/manager dichotomy or at least the way it’s presented here – seems to me it’s possible to have leaders who are more than managers but who are not messiah-figures.

    The word ‘manager’ has come to have quite perjorative connotations to many (particularly when preceded by the word ‘middle’) but leadership is an aspirational quality. After all, doesn’t Springfield run a ‘Growing Leaders’ course? 🙂

  5. Will Cookson
    January 27, 2011 at 1:14 pm #

    The problem that I see is that there is this huge pressure to be the vision maker. It’s what people expect. But some people are really good at taking an organisation or an outfit and making it function within the parameters.
    Or they have this preconception that leadership is this vision stuff. I think that people’s sights are set on the wrong thing all too often. The headteacher of the school where I am governor is one for whom I have huge regard for and admire her. She is a superb manager and has created a great team around her. I don’t see her as a great visionary. Indeed in that school a visionary headteacher might be a real danger to its continued improvement.
    The continued emphasis on visionary means that we all too often follow the wrong people and appoint the wrong person to the role. We want visionary ahead of capable, solid, etc. I am saying that in most cases this is silly of us and the organisations we work for.
    Leadership is not confined to the mega visionaries. We all exercise leadership in different areas of our lives and its sensible to recognise this and develop that in people rather than getting hung up on the vision thing.
    I’m a manager – I haven’t radically changed Springfield or set it on a total new course – I’ve helped others use their gifts to do new things.

  6. Harvey Edser
    January 27, 2011 at 3:49 pm #

    I see your point, and I agree to an extent. Of course there’s a danger in expecting too much of our leaders, and we certainly don’t need mini-messiahs at the head of every organisation (heaven forbid). But leaders do need a degree of vision even if they don’t need to be visionaries… and I definitely see you as a leader more than a manager! 🙂

  7. Jean
    January 27, 2011 at 9:27 pm #

    I agree with Harvey and it’s just as I said. Sometimes it is the people in the organisation, I am using an overarching word not to be taken too literally, who look at whoever is ‘at the top’ and know whether they are a manager or leader/visionary. Will, you are a visionary and I don’t think many would argue with that. Except you of course 😉

  8. Will Cookson
    January 28, 2011 at 12:26 pm #

    My plea is for a greater place for the manager. Someone who is thoughtful and is making a difference. Too often new people come in and replace everything that was there before. All too often revolution is chaotic and counter-productive. The contrast isn’t between visionary and leader but between visionary and manager both of whom are leaders.
    I agree that they are on a continuum but I fear that too many look for too much of a visionary rather than someone who by making incremental careful change actually makes an organisation better.
    My argument about me is that it is the team that we have built up that is making the difference. I haven’t changed the rules of the game!

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