Steve Jobs, co-founder and visionary leader of Apple, has millions of devoted worshipers around the world. The cancer that attacked his body in 2004 finally took him from this world. He is 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.
Now that he is dead, legions of management consultants, academics and business leaders extol Jobs’ virtues as a leader. But is it deserved? I believe not, if you take a balanced look at what constitutes good leadership in modern organizations.
To be sure, Jobs was a complex man full of contradictions, says one of his biographers, Leander Kahney. Jobs was an espoused Zen Buddhist which is anti-materialist, yet built the ultimate company which 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 engineers’ work, and a “need to know only” system of internal company communication.
To say that Jobs was an autocratic leader and micromanager would be an understatement. His autocratic and egotistical style led to his early power struggle with the Board and he left in l984, only to return in l997 to build Apple into the global powerhouse it is today. During both stints at Apple, Jobs’ leadership style could be characterized as the old school “carrot and stick” approach, using praise and flattery, but mostly the stick of 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 anger and foul language, were terrifying to staff. Fortune magazine dubbed Jobs as “one of Silicon Valley’s leading egomaniacs.”
The dark side of Apple and perhaps a reflection of Jobs’ leadership style are the labor conditions in Apple’s Foxconn manufacturing plants in China. In reaction to a spate of worker suicides where fourteen died in 2010, a report by twenty Chinese universities described Foxconn factories as labor camps and detailed widespread worker abuse and illegal overtime. In response to the suicides, Foxconn installed suicide-prevention netting at some facilities, and it promised to offer substantially higher wages at its Shenzhen production bases.Workers were also forced to sign a legally binding document guaranteeing that they and their descendants would not sue the company as a result of unexpected death, self-injury, or suicide. In January 2012, 150 workers in Wuhan threatened to commit mass suicide because of worsening work conditions. The employees 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 did not receive their compensation.
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?
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 genenration of up-and-coming leaders would be a serious mistake.
Ronald Riggio, writing in Psychology Today argues that although Jobs was a visionary leader, a master marketer and presenter, he “could also be a tyrant. He was obsessively controlling, and given to fits of rage, throwing tantrums…took credit for others’ ideas…and fell short of the qualities possessed by the very best leaders.”
Walter Isaacson’s best-selling biography of Jobs is a very revealing picture of both sides of Jobs’ character—the brilliant, charismatic visionary, and the impulsive, crude, and mean-spirited man. He thought nothing of parking in handicapped parking spaces, and denied the paternity of his first daughter so that she and her mother had to live on welfare. Jobs, like Bill Gates, was a very wealthy man, yet according to public records, made no substantial commitments to charities or worthy causes.
The concern that I have, and that it 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.
Robert Sutton, a management professor at Stanford University, examined the behavior of abusive bosses, published in his book, The No-Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. In his research he ran across many examples of Silicon Valley and high-tech leaders who extolled the virtues of Jobs abusive behavior as being necessary to build a successful company. Sutton contended “it is troubling that there’s this notion in our culture that if you’re a winner, it’s okay to be an asshole.”
Sutton argues that despite Jobs’ and Apple’s success, his research shows that abusive bosses are bad for the bottom line, and there are far more successful companies—such as Google, Virgin Atlantic, Procter & Gamble and Southwest Airlines, for example—that are not led by abusive bosses.
Mike Daisy wrote a New York Times op-ed piece “Against Nostalgia,” in which he said, “We can admire the design perfection and business acumen while acknowledging the truth: with Apple’s immense resources at his command he [Jobs] could have revolutionized the industry to make devices more humanely and more openly, and chose not to do so.”
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 that “when a supervisor’s performance outcomes are high, abusive behavior tends to be overlooked by third parties when they evaluate a supervisor’s effectiveness.” In other words, while people might not want to be friends with an abusive boss like Jobs, they’ll tolerate his behavior as long as he is productive.
Now, executives—both current and aspiring—everywhere in North America are either quoting what Steve Jobs said, but would exhort others by criticizing them by the admonishment that “Steve Jobs wouldn’t do that.”
Perhaps the explanation is that our culture, and that includes business, is obsessed with hero workshop and celebrities inordinately including their bad behavior. 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 for sure, bringing up the next generation of leaders to emulate Steve Jobs’ leadership style will take our organizations, if not our society, backwards.