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.
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.
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.
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.
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!